It was the closest thing to a Eureka moment—at least as it happens today in science. While working in the UC Berkeley laboratory of now Stanford-resident chemist Professor Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, Peter Robinson was toying with projects that apply chemistry to create tools for the detection of glycoproteins (proteins with carbohydrates attached).
In the 90s, researchers had invented a way to use DNA to detect such proteins. Investigators attached snippets of DNA onto a molecule called an antibody, which acts like a magnet for a very specific protein. Scientists added the DNA-antibodies to a sample and used the dual compounds to fish out and sensitize detection of a particular protein, potentially a biomarker for a disease.
Robinson’s idea was to flip the technology: attach the protein to the DNA and use the DNA-protein compounds to pull out antibodies from serum samples. This would be a tremendous boon for the early detection of many antibody-associated diseases (i.e., type 1 diabetes).
Robinson shared the idea with his lab mate, Jason Tsai, a chemistry graduate student with strong entrepreneurial aspirations. The two developed the approach, dubbed “Antibody Detection by Agglutination-PCR” or ADAP. Tsai and Robinson, showed that the assay was 1,000 times more sensitive than any traditional antibody-detection test. They chose to focus on type 1 diabetes, caused by auto-antibodies that destroy insulin-producing islet beta cells, because these antibodies are particularly difficult to detect easily.
They partnered with Harvard-educated internist and entrepreneur David Seftel, MD, to launch Enable Biosciences in August 2015. The Enable team began Googling start-up competitions and stumbled onto T1D Exchange’s Diabetes Innovation Challenge. They applied… and won.
But the prize money and the subsequent technology development was only the beginning of the connection. What was missing for Enable was the patients: Did they even want the test?
To answer that, Enable again tapped the T1D Exchange. The team surveyed the organization’s Glu community, conducting surveys and posting Questions of the Day. Enable also drew upon T1D Exchange’s research network, participating in a research collaboration with Stanford’s Department of Pediatrics, for example, with support from JDRF. The team developed minimally invasive and non-invasive diagnostic options.
Perhaps the most impactful post-prize resource was T1D Exchange’s Biobank, from which Enable accessed high-quality, annotated samples from individuals with type 1 diabetes.
“High-risk samples are the lifeblood of the diagnostic industry,” Robinson says. “We needed easy access and quick turnaround of data.”
Now the company is working to finalize the most marketable test(s) and get approval by the FDA. In parallel, the group is exploring a direct-to-consumer version, in which pre- or early symptomatic individuals can send in samples for testing and connect to physicians and community members for support and interpretation of results.
While that plays out, Robinson notes that his personal and professional journey from scientist to patient “advocate” has been an “eye-opener,” one that his group may not have been able to see without the T1D Exchange and its partners.
“T1D Exchange is a wonderful nexus,” he says. “There are so many people doing interesting and valuable things in the type 1 diabetes community, it helps to have a central place where everyone can come and speak and figure out what everyone else is doing.”