In the many years I’ve been educating future biotechnicians, most of my experiences with biotech companies have been good.
But there are always exceptions.
How do we prepare our students for low - not non-zero possibility that they could find themselves working in a company like Theranos? Theranos looked great from the outside and made exciting claims about performing multiple tests from small amounts of blood, while deceiving investors and partner companies, and endangering patients by returning invalid results.
I haven’t encountered many fradulent companies in my lifetime but there are two that stand out. A friend of mine in college worked for a fraudulent airline company at a nearby airport. That company claimed they were an exclusive charter service for customers visiting the Cayman islands. As I read Bad Blood, I remembered my friend’s stories about life at work and the constant atmosphere of paranoia.
I also knew of a company in the 80’s (Endotronics) that hid cell culture machines in a warehouse, and claiming they’d been sold to companies in Japan.
Reading about the day to day work life at Theranos conjures images of a dystopian society reinvented as a biotech company. The IT department really did read everyone’s email. Cameras were everywhere and people were discouraged from talking to each other.
John Carreyrou describes technicians being told to throw out “outliers” - otherwise known as unwanted results. A scientist who questioned the CEO died under unusual circumstances. And the CEO’s boyfriend bullied anyone who questioned practices in the lab.
Bad Blood is not a “Best Practices for Running a Biotech Company” book by any means but I think it’s an important (and interesting) book for biotech students to read.
Two of the main heroes in this story, Tyler Shulz and Erika Cheung, were the lab technicians. Many people probably owe their health and possibly their lives to these technicians who recognized bad science and did something about it. I hope all our graduates finish college with this same ability to distinguish between a lab that practices good science and a lab that does not.
Hopefully, our students are never in this situation but if they do find themselves working at a dishonest company, it might be good to know they’re not imaging things. Bad Blood does a great job presenting warning signs. In the end, Theranos might provide the greatest benefit to society by helping employees figure out when the best option is to blow the whistle and / or quit.