Pearls of Inspiration

Like Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The same is true of science.

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Diagnostics Testing | Aug. 28, 2019

The diagnostic tests for hepatitis have come so far that it's easy to forget that there was a time when no such option existed.

In the early 1970s, hepatitis B was rapidly becoming a global health threat, largely spread through communities via unsterilized needles and the transfusion of infected blood. Yet, the most widely used test was an agar gel diffusion that, while easy to perform, was too inaccurate to rely on.

Dr. Richard Decker, a virologist at Abbott, had an idea: Could we develop a better test. Working with biochemist Ghung-Mei Ling and virologist Lacy Overby, he created a new method for finding a hepatitis diagnosis: a meticulously engineered, highly sensitive and highly accurate blood test they called AUSRIA-125.

And it worked. Almost too well, in fact: Within three months, the tests, which were meant to last an entire year, were sold out as clinics globally looked to get access. Demand for the test was outpacing supply, and the tests couldn't be produced fast enough. And for every blood donation that remained untested, the risk of infection remained a threat.

One night, at a dinner party, Decker vented his frustrations.  The test's design made it cumbersome to manufacture; making each test required coating the inside of thousands of hollow plastic tubes with antibodies, and that took time.

Struck with inspiration, one guest unfastened the string of pearls she'd been wearing around her neck and presented them to Decker. She wondered if coating something small and spherical would do the trick.

It seemed too simple to work — but it did. Decker and his team called up a Chicago-area manufacturer and formulated a bead that could be submerged in antibodies and then run through the AUSRIA system. With the new system, they could coat up to 100,000 beads in an afternoon. The AUSRIA II was born.

Not only was the second-generation test faster and easier to produce, but it provided faster and more accurate results. Within a year, 70% of blood donated for transfusions in the United States were being tested with AUSRIA II tests.

Nearly half a century later, testing for hepatitis has come a long way, but the DNA of AUSRIA II is still embedded in the coding of modern technologies.

At Abbott, more than 7,000 scientists, engineers and other R&D staff are inspired to help develop technologies and tests that help address some of the major health concerns. For this innovation, inspiration came from asking questions and a pearl necklace. 

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Note: This article contains historical references to products that are no longer available or marketed by Abbott. Please refer to the local Abbott affiliate website to obtain the appropriate product information for your country of residence.