Peter Wagner

Tell us about your scientific evolution as an adultCourtesy of Peter WagnerI left Germany in 1989 for Switzerland. I was always interested in interdisciplinary work, and I enjoy going to places to find smart people. I studied biochemistry and chemistry in Switzerland and Germany. I received a Humboldt Fellowship from Germany to study at Stanford. I arrived in the US in 1995.What did you do at Stanford?When I left Switzerland, I combined three fields: protein engineering with materials science an

Jun 7, 2004
Christine Bahls

Tell us about your scientific evolution as an adult

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Courtesy of Peter Wagner

I left Germany in 1989 for Switzerland. I was always interested in interdisciplinary work, and I enjoy going to places to find smart people. I studied biochemistry and chemistry in Switzerland and Germany. I received a Humboldt Fellowship from Germany to study at Stanford. I arrived in the US in 1995.

What did you do at Stanford?

When I left Switzerland, I combined three fields: protein engineering with materials science and microsystems technology. That combination was applied at Stanford for the study of molecular motors.

When did the idea of protein biochips enter the picture?

It started in Zurich where I was using ultrasensitive microscopes to see individual atoms. I decided to adapt that to biology, to see biomolecules while they work. I developed the technology early on to investigate individual protein molecules that are [on the scale] of nanometers. I was taking biology out of the context of a living cell and putting it onto materials. To study those molecules, to learn how a specific protein would work, you take it and put it on glass, polymer, or gold, and use specific techniques. And then later, when we started the company, we wanted to make devices to help people understand the mechanism.

You began Zyomyx before the DNA draft sequences were completed

There was a vision to anticipate what the field would need five, six years down the road. We said, the world is studying genes and sequencing; what will come next is the protein. At that time, everybody said, focus on genetics. We were going to investors, [and] I remember arguing about the unmet needs in the field.

How many patents does Zyomyx have?

We have 20 issued patents; another 100 are pending. One chip we are proud of is the first electronic ion-channel chip; it's not on the market. We created a chip that has these ion-channel proteins, and you use electronics to monitor the activity of these proteins. That is something we foresee 10 years from now, that clinicians will have [these chips on] handheld devices.

To what do you attribute your success?

From the beginning, we had an engineering approach to building those chips. We invested an enormous amount in analytical tools to develop chips in a rational manner ... I think a lot of competitors tried to do it the fast way; people tried to make things smaller but didn't have a functional chip. We did things from the bottom up.

What lies in the future?

If I had $200 million, we could go to the next level. I see a lot of potential opportunities in the biochip field where we can integrate different types of measurements [such as] detecting proteins while they interact in cells. This would help make much better diagnostic devices. If someone goes to the emergency room with chest pain, there are a lot of false positives. This technology would be much more precise.

But at what cost?

There is a cost factor that is nonexistent now, but in the future, society will need to decide how to cover the costs of potential diseases. If you are 20 years old, and have a test that says at age 50, you will develop Parkinson, you will create cost at age 20. That is something that society, health-care organizations, and insurance companies need to tackle.

Early-stage detection is expensive. The questions are, who pays for it and what would you pay to prevent disease? Now, you wait until you see disease outbreak and then treat it. The tests need to be cheap. If someone is wrongfully hospitalized, you basically burn $1,000 a day to treat that patient. There has to be a change in the mindset, to put money in prevention.

When I was at the World Forum, there were intense discussions on personalized medicine in regard to this. [The Forum named Wagner one of its 2004 Technology Pioneers.]

Christine Bahls can be reached at cbahls@the-scientist.com.