I haven’t been covering every step of the Great Theranos Unraveling, partly because it’s been on every news site there is. But the company (in the person of Elizabeth Holmes) recently disclosed yet another new blood testing device, in a presentation at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry meeting. That might seem an audacious venue, given the company’s clinical chemistry difficulties. The talk itself was notably long on claims and short on details (and does not seem to have gone over well). But there’s even more to the story, according to the Financial Times:
Several scientists on the committee responsible for organising the meeting opposed the decision to invite Ms Holmes for fear that it would lend credibility to her company, while others decided to boycott the presentation in protest. They believe the association invited Ms Holmes to generate publicity.
Dr Andy Hoofnagle, a member of the organising committee, said he and several of his colleagues had “fought really hard to prevent” Ms Holmes from appearing but were overruled by the AACC president, Patricia Jones.
“I’m removing myself from the committee and don’t intend to pay my dues next year,” he added, in effect announcing his resignation from the association.
The article goes on to quote a number of very disgruntled AACC members, but it’s impossible to say what fraction of the membership was upset. Patricia Jones herself is quoted as estimating about ten per cent, so we can take that as a lower bound. The decision to invite Holmes’ presentation probably looks even worse in hindsight, but the people quoted in the article were opposed before the first slide went up on the screen. Still, she had the perfect venue to actually break out some real data and restore some scientific credibility, but would seem to have spent too much of her time in sales-pitch mode.
That’s definitely the wrong way to pitch a talk at a meeting like this. The people who go to meetings on this topic have been bombarded by advertising for new instruments and assays; they can recognize when someone’s trying to sell them something. At any scientific meeting, you can see people walking out when something starts to sound like a “vendor talk” instead of a scientific presentation. At its worst, it feels a bit like having a conversation with someone and having them start to ask you if you’ve considered buying Amway products. Holmes surely realized that she would be facing a very technically oriented audience, many of whose members were skeptical (or openly hostile), so taking this approach really shows poor judgment. The only way Theranos is going to convince anyone of anything is with data – lots of data, and as much of it generated by independent third parties as possible. Talking about the great new chapter in the company’s history – look at this new machine! – is not going to cut it.