In 2014-15, one of the most highly fêted names in biomedical circles was Elizabeth Holmes. 31 year-old Holmes had founded a company called Theranos, to manufacture a small, easy-to-use device – the Edison– that was capable of running multiple analyses on a single drop of blood. Although the Edison was not yet commercially available, the company was testing blood samples from Palo Alto patients on their in-house machines, and had signed agreements with the Cleveland Clinic, Capital BlueCross and AmeriHealth Caritas.
Holmes predicted that Thaneros technology would slash the cost of blood tests, spare patients the stress and pain of repeated blood draws and allow everyday people to monitor their own health on a daily basis, just as a diabetic checks their blood sugar levels. What investors and consumers did not know, however, was that beneath its elegant housing the Edison consisted of little more than a pipette robotic arm, only able to carry out one of the three types of tests Theranos offered, and that with very poor reproducibility. Other tests were carried out on standard equipment but on such dilute samples that their results were also unreliable, and doctors using the company’s services were frequently having to reorder tests from other providers.