New blood testing is a game-changer in women’s health – here's what you need to know

By Allyson Shiffman

Photo: Thomas Cooksey

We speak to Dr. Stephen Quake, head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, about his game-changing blood tests and what they mean for the future of women’s health

Our blood may have all the answers, we just have to know how to access them. Enter Dr. Stephen Quake, a renowned physicist whose advancements in blood testing have already extended lives. Via a company he founded called ClearNote Health, Quake and his team developed a test that detects early-stage pancreatic cancer – the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. The chance of surviving five years with a late-stage diagnosis is about three per cent, but catch the the cancer via Quake’s blood test at stage 1A and the chances of surviving five years leap to 80 per cent. Add to these staggering stats the fact that Quake’s blood tests are non-invasive (really, a simple blood test), widely accessible and affordable and you have a truly disruptive advancement, one that can touch countless lives.


Now Quake, who is currently the head of science and co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s philanthropy-meets-technology organisation), has developed a similar test to detect early stage ovarian cancer. The fifth leading cause of cancer-related death in women in the United States, one in 78 women will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. While the chance of surviving five years with a late-stage diagnosis is less than 40 per cent, the chance of surviving with a stage one diagnosis is greater than 90 per cent. Quake’s non-invasive blood test will begin its roll-out in the United States this month and is set to be introduced in Europe in the spring.

There’s sort of this assumption that women are just little men, when they’re obviously incredibly different. Then there are concerns that women are more complicated than men.

Dr. Stephen Quake, head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

This isn’t Quake’s first foray into women’s health. In 2012 he launched another noninvasive blood test for pregnant woman that can detect genetic disorders such as Down syndrome in the fetus. The test serves as a non-invasive alternative to amniocentesis, which requires poking a long needle into a woman’s womb through her abdomen.

“I got interested in these questions of women’s health – especially reproductive health – when I became a father,” says Quake. When his wife was expecting their first child, the doctor suggested amniocentesis. “[The doctor] turned around with a giant needle in his hand and jabbed it right in her belly. We were both a little freaked out and this idea that you have to risk the life of your baby on a diagnostic test just seemed wrong.” (Editor’s note: the risk of pregnancy loss from amniocentesis in the second trimester is 0.1% to 0.3%). So Quake set about finding a solution, calling it “a good problem to solve”. Today, approximately 10 million women receive the test every year. “It’s been an enormous impact,” he says.

Photo: Thomas Cooksey

Currently, Quake is in the late stages of developing a test to determine the likelihood of a premature birth. “There’s been no reliable way to predict who’s at risk for premature birth,” he says, noting that 10 per cent of women give birth prematurely. According to the World Health Organisation, prematurity is the leading cause of death in children under five. With the help of a study organised by the Danish National Biobank, in which a number of brave women agreed to give blood every week of their pregnancy, Quake and his team were able to discover what they believe to be “the first diagnostic for preterm birth”. When Quake and I spoke, the test was in trials.

When it comes to health, women are notoriously understudied, According to Quake, this is for a variety of disheartening reasons. “There’s sort of this assumption that women are just little men, when they’re obviously incredibly different,” he says. “Then there are concerns that women are more complicated than men.” For instance, some argue that a woman’s menstrual cycle will disrupt a clinical trial, making its findings less conclusive. Quake, however, sees only opportunity to make life-changing strides. “I was able to go into this field that was understudied and do good work,” he says, adding humbly that it was “low hanging fruit” due to biases causing people to “ignore important problems”. When Quake isn’t in the lab, he’s teaching bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford University.

Once these tests become widely available, it’s simply up to us to take them. Throughout our conversation, Quake stresses the importance of early detection – its ability to save lives. I ask him what Vogue Scandinavia can do to help. “It would be wonderful if you could share the news,” he says.

For more information on the blood testing initiative, visit ClearNote Health.