High Tech Tests
Vincent M. Powers J.D. ’97 works as a biotech attorney for a leading company that designs rapid medical tests.
BY SUSAN VOGEL
Anyone who has had to wait days for the results of a medical test has done a lot of nail-biting. But the need for fast medical test results is not just a convenience in our get-it-now society. It can be a health necessity.
“Fast testing is vital,” says Powers, “particularly for contagious disease. Having test results in less than an hour or two can help doctors choose the right treatment right away and also decide when patient isolation is necessary. It can also help avoid wrong treatments and reduce hospital stays.”
Powers, whose sister’s close friend could only watch as her son endured a month of hospitalization after contracting a MRSA infection from heart surgery, is glad to be part of a leading company that designs fast medical tests, such as a 60- minute test for MRSA and a 100-minute test for tuberculosis.
Powers has masterfully combined his education in science with a Santa Clara Law degree to become one of just a handful of biotech lawyers working in this highly specialized field. “I am using all of my education since kindergarten,” he says.
In high school Powers was interested in math, chemistry, and English. He learned to sail in the Sea Explorers, an organization devoted to keeping nautical traditions alive through sailing, rowing, knot tying, and Morse code competitions. He also studied as a classical pianist. At Caltech (’83) Powers majored in chemistry. He then earned a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF (’89) and spent an additional two years at U.C. Berkeley as an NIH post-doctoral fellow.
Yet as he was completing his studies with an eye toward teaching at a research university, the job market softened. “I had a friend who left graduate school at Harvard to join the patent litigation group at Fish & Richardson in Boston. I felt it was within my ability to write and argue about science, so I left the lab bench, doing experiments that didn’t always work, to become a patent agent, introducing me to patent law.” His employer, Peter Dehlinger, graciously paid for Powers to attend the evening program at SCU Law while working full-time as a patent agent. Powers was admitted to the California Bar in 1997.
In 1999 he joined Applied Biosystems (ABI) in Foster City as a patent attorney and then Director of Chemical Patent Practice. While at ABI, Powers handled patent applications and contracts and, with the help of several exceptional litigation firms, he managed the enforcement and defense of several commercially valuable patents in the U.S. and abroad, leading to a number of injunctions and favorable settlements.
Powers left ABI in 2007 to join Cepheid, a Sunnyvale company, where he is Vice President of Intellectual Property. Cepheid develops genetic tests for clinical diagnostics, industrial, and biothreat markets, with 2008 revenues of over $160 million. One of the systems that Cepheid has patented is a machine for processing test cartridges for pathogens such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a nasty bacterium that hospitalizes over 200,000 patients and results in approximately 20,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. An MRSA test cartridge typically costs around $40-$45, and the test machinery costs tens of thousands of dollars, depending on cartridge capacity. When compared to a mean cost of around $21,000 to treat a single infected patient, such testing can be quite cost-effective.
The cartridge embodies remarkable technology. About the size of an ordinary salt shaker, it is designed to automate many time-consuming manual steps. After a sample is collected from just inside a patient’s nose, the sample is suspended in a solution and then pipetted into a small opening at the top of the cartridge. The cartridge is then placed in a machine about the size of a lunch box. The cells are then blasted open, the released target DNA is mixed with reagents, and the target DNA is multiplied a billion-fold until a fluorescent signal appears in a tiny transparent chamber. (Powers can explain the details of the biology, chemistry, and engineering in detail, thankfully drawing analogies to baking chocolate chip cookies!) All of these steps are completed in 30 to 100 minutes, depending on the target that the cartridge detects, and each cartridge can be run in an individual module of the machine as soon as the sample is collected. Powers summarizes this technology as “extraordinary.”
Most exciting to Powers is the privilege of working with scientists and business people who bring innovation to life. Powers uses his legal training daily, in patent analysis, contract drafting, and legal counseling. “We live in an age of unparalleled discovery,” he says, “that will continue to require professionals who bridge science with the law, and for whom SCU should continue to play a vital educational role.”