By any estimation, David Walt, PhD, has already had a tremendously successful career. Walt is perhaps best known for his invention of microwell arrays—a laboratory staple that allows researchers to use extremely small amounts of samples to detect and analyze DNA. (This invention was recently recognized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which will induct Walt in the spring of 2019.) In addition, in 1998, Walt helped found a small biotechnology company in San Diego, Calif. Based in part on Walt’s idea for a new way to use microwell arrays to perform genetic analysis, that company, Illumina Inc., evolved into a multi-billion-dollar biotech giant.
But Walt is not one to rest on his laurels. Thoughtful, humble and driven, he now sets his sights on solving problems in the clinic. In 2017, he accepted a dual appointment at the Brigham, as a member of the Department of Pathology, and the Wyss Institute, as a core faculty member, to expand his work into clinical translation while also continuing to pursue bioengineering research interests.
“Over the years my research has become more clinically focused,” Walt said. “The Brigham attracted me because it’s an environment where I have access to samples, patients and clinicians. I can now understand where the problems are and how technologies can help meet the unmet clinical needs.”
Advancing Precision Medicine
Walt is pursuing and perfecting ultrasensitive protein detection. His lab has developed Single Molecule Arrays (Simoa), a technology that can simultaneously detect thousands of single-protein molecules. In 2007, Walt co-founded Quanterix to commercialize Simoa, which is a thousand times more sensitive than the commonly used enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and it can help illuminate changes as a disease progresses. Walt’s lab is interested in advancing the field of precision medicine by accurately determining baseline measurements of proteins, tracking changes and diagnosing disease before symptoms appear.
Walt’s ultrasensitive protein testing has a wide range of potential applications. He regularly receives emails from clinicians at the Brigham, for example, asking to discuss specific clinical obstacles. As part of this demand, Walt is currently developing blood-based tests for Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, breast cancer and tuberculosis. His team is also investigating developing saliva-based tests for diagnostics.
“My dream is to use this technology to test for breast cancer in young women and establish baseline blood measurements at age 15,” said Walt. “Physicians could then follow up each year with blood test monitoring. This would allow doctors to compare an individual’s diseased self to their previously healthy self (personalized medicine), instead of to a population average of women with breast cancer.”