The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
When Rushdy Ahmad was growing up in Bangladesh, he was confronted with poverty and suffering all around. He has spent years searching for a place and position where he could use his scientific training to help alleviate some of that pain. Rushdy finally found that opportunity as the staff lead of the Wyss Diagnostics Accelerator (Wyss DxA), a collaboration-driven initiative that is focused on effectively and efficiently developing and delivering diagnostics to solve unmet clinical needs. Learn more about Rushdy and the Wyss DxA in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What is the Wyss Diagnostics Accelerator?
The Wyss Diagnostics Accelerator (Wyss DxA) is an initiative focused on quickly developing and delivering diagnostic technologies to solve unmet clinical needs through deep collaboration amongst all stakeholders involved in the process of getting a diagnostic to where it’s needed. The process of delivering a diagnostic that helps reduce disease burden follows four steps – discovery, development, delivery, and impact measurement. As an “accelerator,” we aim to compress the typical timeline it takes for a new diagnostic to progress through all those steps.
How does the Wyss Diagnostics Accelerator work?
We have a catalogue of unmet diagnostic needs, which we’ve built with input directly from Brigham and Women’s clinicians like nurses and physicians – basically, people who deal with patients and can identify current clinical gaps. Next, we triage these needs with the help of our Clinical Advisory Committee to identify the top priorities.
Then we reach back out to the clinicians and develop a target product profile for these prioritized clinical needs. This gives us the parameters of the project: How sensitive does the tool need to be? What biomarker is it going to measure? Should it use saliva or blood? Measure protein or DNA? And so on. Next, we can engage Wyss members.
Once Wyss members are engaged, we connect them to the clinicians who submitted the unmet need. At this point Wyss researchers and Brigham clinicians figure out the details, and if they deem the project viable then a collaborative team is born. The team then develops a proposal for funding. This process allows us to effectively engage with the Wyss community to either find an existing technology or develop new technology to solve the unmet need.
For our first project, aiming to develop a novel and sensitive Lyme disease diagnostic, the team submitted a proposal and was selected to become a Wyss Validation Project. This team consists of members of George Church’s lab, and they have started working with an expert Lyme disease clinician from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. By working with a clinician from the very beginning the technology team avoids potential blind alleys, since the clinicians are versed in the nuances of that particular disease.
Can you talk a bit more about the partnership between Brigham and Women’s Hospital clinicians and Wyss engineers and scientists?
In July 2021, the Wyss and Brigham and Women’s Hospital launched the Brigham-Wyss DxA as a formal collaboration between the two institutions. My colleague Trey Toombs, who works with the Brigham Research Institute, plays a critical role in engaging with Brigham clinicians. He facilitates connections with Brigham clinical staff so we can conduct interviews, present at departmental meetings, and share the link to our online portal where clinicians can submit unmet needs. We also work with the Brigham’s communications team to share our message with their staff.
Once we match a need with a technology, Wyss researchers collaborate directly with the Brigham clinician who identified the unmet need. They’ll have critical input from Brigham clinicians who are in the field every day, making sure what they develop is purposeful and helps save lives. Ultimately, the clinician is the end-user of the diagnostic, so having their feedback early is key to speeding up the development process and ensuring the product’s eventual success in the real world.
Then, once the diagnostics have been lab-tested at the Wyss, further testing can be performed at the Brigham under Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) conditions. The CLIA lab lets clinicians test the diagnostics on real patient samples in a clinically relevant setting, which accelerates the regulatory process. Once the diagnostic gets to the FDA, they can see it has already been used under CLIA conditions, giving it a significant advantage over a technology that has only been tested at a lab bench.
What real-world problem does this initiative aim to solve?
Diagnostics can take decades to develop, and many of them don’t perform as well as they should or are so costly that they cannot reach the masses, which reduces their impact. Half of the world’s population, which is about 4 billion people, live on less than $5 a day. If the only diagnostic for a disease is exorbitantly expensive and/or not covered by insurance, that cuts out a large portion of the population, which is not fair.
The Wyss DxA will solve that by working directly with clinicians and practitioners to efficiently develop and deliver diagnostics for all diseases, wherever and whenever they’re necessary. That’s our bold and audacious goal!
How did you become involved in the Wyss Diagnostics Accelerator?
In 2015, I was working at the Broad Institute and David Walt came to speak about his Simoa technology. We began collaborating on a project that is near and dear to me – a blood based, easy-to-use, accurate, and inexpensive tuberculosis diagnostic. Even back then, we used to talk about solving unmet needs.
David Walt joined the Wyss in 2017 and I left the Broad in 2018 to start my own organizations, but the two of us were still in touch. David conceptualized a vision for the Wyss DxA and was looking for someone to join the Wyss’ Advanced Technology Team to run the Initiative from the staff side. His idea excited me! I wanted to engage in outcome-oriented science instead of output-oriented science. By output, I primarily mean publications and lectures. That’s important, but it’s not the end of the story. I’m interested in applied biology and delivering products to help patients.
So, David’s vision and our shared passion for solving unmet needs brought me to the Wyss Institute and the Wyss DxA.
How do your previous experiences inform the way you approach your work at the Wyss?
Though I’ve lived in the United States most of my life, I spent my formative years in Bangladesh. There, I saw human suffering all around me. After getting my Ph.D. in physics trying to determine whether neutrinos, a type of fundamental particle, had mass or not, I realized that I no longer wanted to pursue science that was irrelevant to the workings of our everyday life and had no positive impact on the masses. I wanted to do something that would help people, especially the underserved and disenfranchised, directly. In pursuit of this goal, I worked in the software industry, then returned to academia and worked in biomedical research for many years. However, I still felt like I was nowhere closer to delivering something to patients and people who needlessly suffer from diseases. This strong desire to see an innovation I contributed to helping people and reducing disease burden informs my work at the Wyss because it motivates everything I do. It’s why I came here, and it is a guiding principle of my work.
I’ve also taken the lessons I’ve learned in my previous roles and applied them here. At the Wyss, we have the freedom of academia, but we also need to have clear goals if we want to translate our technologies. I like to use OKRs – objectives and key results – with my team. We always define what the objectives are, a date we want them completed by, and how we will know we’ve met the goals. The executives at Google use these principles, and look what they’ve been able to create! Finally, I value teamwork. It’s not about me as an individual, it’s about everyone holding each other accountable so we can solve problems together. This may sound trite, but for me it isn’t just lip service!
What advice would you give to an academic scientist looking to translate their technology?
Focus on unmet needs. It’s cool to come up with a technology that doesn’t exist, but what is the application going to be? It’s helpful to keep the use case in mind as early as possible in the development process. An unmet need should “pull” the innovation towards it, instead of researchers trying to “push” their technology into a field where it’s not useful. Also, work with clinicians. That’s a principle of the Wyss DxA. Clinicians are often the end-user of your technology, or they have close contact with the end-user you ultimately serve – the patients.
If you are working on something related to diagnostics or therapeutics, there will be regulatory processes and operational hurdles to consider. It is best to understand the whole pipeline and all the places where tough decisions might have to be made. Come up with clear objectives, do the experiments, and make informed decisions based on the data. Don’t get married to your initial idea. It is difficult to do, because you get so attached to your own ideas that it can be hard to be objective. But it is important to listen to others and pay attention to the data. Remember, as a scientist you are a professional skeptic.
What inspired you to get into this field?
As I mentioned, I grew up in Bangladesh from fifth to twelfth grade. There was poverty all around me. My father is a developmental economist, and my mother is a historian, both with Ph.D.s, so we were in the privileged academic class, but my parents were very altruistic in nature. To paraphrase Spiderman, so to speak, they taught me early on that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
I was always interested in math and science, and I wanted to use my skills to give back in a meaningful way. Diagnostics interests me because there are many unmet needs but not as much financial investment as there is in therapeutics and vaccines.
I’ve become passionate about blood-based diagnostics partially because of an experience I had when I was young that’s always in the back of my mind. When I was eight or nine years old, we had someone who helped out in our house named Shaju. I still remember vividly the day that he started coughing up blood. After that I never saw him again. It turned out he had tuberculosis. For a long time growing up, I was afraid of blood. Now I know that blood can tell all – it has the signatures of all types of diseases; we just need to be good enough to hunt and find these signatures and turn them into lifesaving diagnostics. As a physicist I was a neutrino hunter and now I am a biomarker hunter. To effectively hunt for biomarkers that can lead to live saving diagnostics the Wyss DxA has initiated a new Wyss wide program called Biomarker Discovery Laboratory, abbreviated BDL and pronounced Beedle like my favorite band, The Beatles. I cannot wait to share more about this exciting collaborative engine soon.
What continues to motivate you?
Doing the most good possible driven by data and reason. I now label myself as an effective altruist. I try to follow these principles I set out for myself. Of course we all have selfish desires, but we can acknowledge them and offset our privilege by helping others. For example, if I went on an expensive vacation, I’d try to give a similar amount to charity.
I strive to be the best person possible and give back each day in some meaningful way. That spirit of altruism motivates me each day. In fact, I have setup a charitable organization in Bangladesh based on the principles of effective altruism and it’s starting to make meaningful impact.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
It’s hard not to acknowledge COVID-19 as a huge hurdle, especially since I joined the Wyss mere days before the labs shut down. Another big challenge is collaboration. Finding the right team is essential to success, but it must be organic in a way. Human beings are complex with our emotions and how we react to things. So, A and B could get along well, and B and C could work well together, but if A and C don’t gel, you have an issue. Being able to form great teams is the key to success in any translational and multidisciplinary work, so it’s crucial to find that magic.
When not at the Wyss, how do you like to spend your time?
First and foremost, I like to spend time with my family. We enjoy doing all types of activities together. One thing we like to do is travel. This August we went to Norway to see the fjords, which has been on my list for some time. We love cooking together and playing all types of games and instruments. We also talk about how to give back, and that’s at the core of our family and our engagement, because we recognize our own privilege. We have a lot of fun with that too.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
This has changed a lot over the years, but right now I think I’d be a drummer because of its relation to the heart. Everyone’s heart beats, everyone moves to the rhythm of music. It’s universal. It’s one way we can bring everyone together and it’s the one language everyone understands. It doesn’t matter where the drumbeat is coming from, we can all respond to it. Now I am learning to play the drums, but I am nowhere near a professional. I have a drum kit in the basement. I play all types of instruments, including the sitar and sarod. Music is truly wonderful and universal.
What’s something fun or unique about you that people wouldn’t know from your resume?
I am a trained miner. To be precise, I was one at some point. As a physics graduate student, the detector that we built to detect neutrinos was a mile and a half underground in a nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Since it was an active mine, all of us had to be trained as a miner to enter. We used to joke that if this physics thing didn’t work out, at least we had received another set of job skills and could work as miners. Though these days I prefer mining for life saving biomarkers!
What does it feel like to be working towards translating cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It feels amazing, but I hope this feeling is just the beginning. I’m excited by the potential of delivering real-world impact using the support structure that’s available at the Wyss. I’m eager to one day go to rural Africa, or Bangladesh, or Brazil, or even the Brigham and see Wyss technology saving lives. The opportunity to measure success by lives saved is so exhilarating, I can’t even imagine how rewarding that will be. The hope for that feeling is what keeps me going.