Andrew Brooks, a molecular neuroscientist who developed the first COVID-19 saliva test to receive emergency use authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration, died on January 23 of a heart attack. He was 51.
In the early days of the pandemic, when testing resources such as swabs and reagents were scarce, Brooks’s saliva test offered a fast and reliable way to screen large numbers of people. The test, which he designed while head of the Rutgers-affiliated biorepository RUCDR Infinite Biologics, protected essential workers from exposure to the virus as they collected samples by doing away with the need for technicians to be on-hand to gather the fluid—people could simply spit into a cup. The FDA first authorized the test in April 2020, and a month later expanded marketing for in-home use.
“It completely mitigates the risk of contracting the disease while you’re getting a test,” Brooks told The Scientist in a July 2020 interview. “You don’t have to be in someone’s face like you do for a nasopharyngeal swab,” another type of test that faced severe supply shortages beginning in mid-March.
Since April, these tests have been administered to more than 4 million people, according to a Rutgers University obituary. During a coronavirus briefing on January 25, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy referred to Brooks as “one of the state’s unsung heroes” whose work during the pandemic had “undoubtedly saved lives.”
Born in February 1969 in Bronxville, New York, Brooks grew up in neighboring New Jersey, The New York Times reports. He attended Cornell University with the intention of pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, but a summer internship at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center convinced him to study human disease. In 2000, Brooks completed a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of Rochester, where he remained for the next four years as the director of the medical center’s core facilities.
In 2005, Brooks returned to New Jersey to serve as director of the Bionomics Research and Technology Center, a joint initiative between Rutgers University and several neighboring medical institutions. Along the way, he cultivated an interest in the business side of science, working with other researchers to commercialize their products.
Among these initiatives, Brooks became the chief operating officer of the Cell and DNA Repository, a company owned by Rutgers University and later named RUCDR Infinite Biologics that provided data management and analysis services for biological samples. During his early tenure, Brooks helped to grow the company from a handful of employees to several hundred, and it is now the world’s largest university-based biorepository.
In 2018, Brooks oversaw RUCDR’s privatization, a process that culminated in the summer of 2020 after Brooks was named chief executive officer of the newly branded Infinity BiologiX.
It was during his time with RUCDR Infinite Biologics that Brooks designed the saliva test, pulling on his background in molecular genetics to overcome the difficulties in working with saliva, such as its viscosity and the number of DNA-degrading enzymes found in human spit. “There are challenges for every biological sample,” he told The Scientist. “We’ve already addressed a lot of challenges of working with saliva, and [COVID-19] just represented a new target for detection.”
To bring the tests to scale, Brooks received support from Operation Warp Speed and a hefty loan secured through his colleague and friend, Jay Tischfield, a geneticist at Rutgers University and chief executive officer of RUCDR. The lab was able to purchase several multimillion dollar machines to automate the extraction and amplification of each sample using traditional PCR techniques, requiring Brooks to double the lab’s workforce almost overnight. Brooks also partnered with two companies, Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostics Labs, to oversee the manufacturing and distribution of the tests, while his lab handled the analysis.
In the July interview with The Scientist, Brooks admitted to sometimes working 22 hours a day. “As a professional, I have never felt so much stress or pressure in my life, [but] you have a sense of purpose,” he said. “We’ve all taken it to another level because of its importance. I hope we never see anything like it in our lifetime again.”
Brooks is survived by his wife, Jil; his three daughters, Laura, Hannah, and Danielle; his mother, Phyllis; his sister, Janet Green; and a niece and nephew. The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the Rutgers University Foundation, which is establishing a new Dr. Andrew Brooks Memorial Scholarship.