“Why are we doing this test that may cost us the life of our unborn baby?”
That’s the question Stephen Quake asked himself when his pregnant wife needed amniocentesis during her pregnancy with their first baby. It’s a scary and invasive test that comes with risks ranging from cramping and infection to preterm labor, fetal deformities and miscarriage.
While the experience was stressful, it also motivated Quake to eventually develop a blood test to replace amniocentesis. Now, he said, about “8 million (people) a year receive those tests. There’s thousands of unnecessary deaths avoided because people are not using amniocentesis and other invasive tests.”
A long-time health innovator who’s worked in a range of industry and university roles, Quake — who MIT has called one of the most prolific inventors in the world — has often been driven by personal experience and the desire to help others facing similar challenges.
He said there’s a “very direct connection between lived experiences as a parent and husband and the kinds of things I work on in the lab.”
Quake also seems to be everywhere at once. He’s the Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering and professor of applied physics at Stanford University and leads the eponymous Quake Lab there. He was the founding co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Inventors.
And this summer, he stepped into a high-profile position as head of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic organization established and owned by Facebook (now named Meta) founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. The initiative’s mission is to cure, prevent or manage all human diseases by the end of the century. He’s doing this while continuing his work at Stanford.
“This is an unbelievably rare opportunity and a luxury to have this 100-year timescale."
Head of science, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
In 2015, Zuckerberg and Chan pledged 99% of their lifetime Facebook shares to advance CZI’s mission, and since its launch in 2015, the initiative has awarded roughly $4.84 billion in grants and more than $300 million in venture capital investing in companies whose values and mission match CZI’s.
The science arm of CZI takes a three-pronged approach to its work: “Doing science through founding institutes, funding science through grant giving and building open-source software to accelerate science,” Quake said. “It's my job as head of science to oversee all that and help it move forward to work on deeply inspiring, big problems that are going to ultimately affect human health.”
For example, CZI in October announced a funding commitment with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will award $2 million to researchers who are investigating and detecting novel and emerging pathogens with applications in human health, zoonosis, vector-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
The initiative said it would work with the U.K. Biobank and other partners to conduct a repeat set of multi-organ imaging scans on 60,000 U.K. Biobank participants to help researchers assess changes in physiology over time.
Going all in
Quake has been interested in science and technology since childhood. The son of a software entrepreneur, he learned how to program computers on punch cards during his childhood in upstate New York. He translated that enthusiasm into a computer camp he ran for the other children in his neighborhood, and eventually, all that time in front of the screen gave him quick hands on the keyboard. Once, while accompanying his dad to a computer expo in Las Vegas, he even entered — and won — a contest to see who could type a company’s I marketing slogan the fastest.
“They made it difficult by having capital letters in the middle of the words and things like that,” he said. “While they were doing their marketing pitch, I went and practiced on the computer until I had the phrase perfectly memorized.”
That interest in computers became a springboard for Quake’s passion for science, and by high school, he was participating in a weekend science program at Columbia University, where he studied physics. He read theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography and was inspired by that, too. By the time he was 22, he had earned both a bachelor’s in physics and master’s in mathematics from Stanford University. Just three years later, he completed a doctorate in Theoretical Physics from the University of Oxford. Now, when you search Quake’s name online, he’s referred to as an “American inventor” — a description he’s very proud of.
“It turns out if you're counting patents or something like that, I’m one of the more prolific inventors in the world,” he said. “My research and the discoveries we’ve done as an academic (center) have led to patentable inventions (in) both labs at Caltech and at Stanford and now with the Biohub.”
In addition, many inventions from his work at Stanford have been spun into companies. For instance, he’s founded or co-founded several biotech companies, such as ImmuMetrix, Fluidigm and Quanticel Pharmaceutical.
In fact, he said Stanford makes “substantial royalties every year on our patents on noninvasive diagnostics, both for pregnancy testing and for organ transplant recipients.”
Quake’s inventions and the companies he’s founded have led to success and acclaim, like winning the “Oscar for inventors,” the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2012, but he says he’s the proudest of the impact his work has had on people’s lives — particularly, the work he did to develop noninvasive prenatal testing and the tests that now allow organ transplant patients to avoid invasive biopsies.
“Hundreds of thousands of people a year get to have much safer and better care after (a) transplant because of those inventions,” he said.
Still, he’s not finished yet.
“There's more coming, and we’ve got a bunch of stuff in clinical trials of various sorts,” he said.
Some notable examples include noninvasive tests to predict preeclampsia, part of his work at Stanford and the CZ Biohub that was detailed in a February Nature article, as well as other projects to predict preterm birth; a method for identifying pancreatic cancer using a computational approach to cell classification, which was also published in Nature in 2020; and a therapy for curing food allergies from another company he co-founded, IgGenix, which is developing a first-in-class antibody to block the allergic cascade.
He’s got personal connections in some of those areas, too. His daughter was born three and a half months early, and lived with a peanut allergy until she underwent an early experimental desensitization treatment that was successful, but requires her to eat a peanut every day.
“Finding ways that are going to be less intrusive and less risky is a huge motivation,” he said.
A 100-year vision
Biotech and other for-profit companies must prioritize speed, but as for CZI’s mission to end disease by 2099, Quake is happy to work on the big problems.
“This is an unbelievably rare opportunity and a luxury to have this 100-year timescale,” Quake said. “That enables us to really focus on … transformative discoveries and basic science that over the course of decades will be turned into therapies and diagnostics.”
During the next decade, though, the focus of CZI’s science philanthropy will be on measuring human biology by “funding science and technologies that help us understand the mysteries of the cell and how cells work together in systems.”
A company representative said via email that its goal is to "build the tools to understand, observe, measure and analyze any biological process within the human body across spatial scales and in real time.”
“It's an amazing time to do that,” Quake said. “And I'm super excited about it.”