In February 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus epidemic a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This mosquito and sexually transmitted disease, which in large part had gone undetected due to minimal symptoms, was now spreading and appearing in the form of birth defects among thousands of newborns in Brazil.
During epidemics such as these, the work of scientists like Jonathan Wang is so vital. Wang, research and development leader for molecular biology at Thermo Fisher, is part of a team that develops tests that enable customers to diagnose and combat infectious diseases. In response to the Zika outbreak, they were able to create a mobile diagnostic kit that could provide a patient with test results in less than 30 minutes. The kit served hundreds of thousands of people in the hardest-hit areas of the globe – all in less than three weeks.
“Those are the things that we try to create that make the world healthier, cleaner and safer,” said Wang, who is based in South San Francisco.
The Zika outbreak provided a chance for Wang to see his work truly making a difference in thousands of lives. A more personal experience seven years earlier, however, ignited a passion for what would become his life’s work.
In 2008, his three-month old son developed a fever that resulted in a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night. It was only after they had rushed to the hospital that Wang was told that the test they used to diagnose his son would take 12 hours to generate results – an interminable length of time for parents concerned about a child’s health.
“My feeling was, we have the technology, why can’t we just have the test done within the hour? And ultimately, can we get our technology to be used in the real world?” Wang said.
After his son’s recovery, he put himself to work answeringthese questions. With a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California – Los Angeles and a background in genomics, Wang started working as a manufacturing scientist for Applied Biosystems. That position led him to an R&D role at Life Technologies, which Thermo Fisher acquired in 2014. Wang has been focused on quantitative polymerase chain reaction (QPCR), a technology used to amplify small amounts of nucleic acids found in all living things to a visible size. qPCR is typically used for genetic testing for infectious disease, and it was this technology that enabled Wang to create the Zika assay in 2015, a real-world application with profound impact.
“Seeing your work actually make an impact is huge,” he said. “In this case, we’re seeing our work being used directly to fight a disease, which is really powerful.”
Today, Wang’s time is spent researching a multitude of mosquito borne viruses, including West Nile, yellow fever, and chikungunya. In addition to this research, he is also working on lyophilization, a freeze dry process that allows reagents and tests to be shipped to the farthest corners of the world without perishing from temperature changes and without any aviation hazard, a plausible threat when shipping materials in dry ice. The viruses and diseases may differ but Jonathan’s drive to create and spread quick and reliable tests throughout the world remains at the heart of his work.
“My goal is to democratize our technologies to as many customers as possible so that we can make the world safer and healthier,” said Wang.
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