Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

October 20, 2004:

Andrew Levin ’76

Andrew Levin ’76’s anthrax test will be used in case of a major outbreak or terrorist attack. (Photo by Steve Nelson)

Detecting disease
Andrew Levin ’76 develops diagnostic test for anthrax

Before the outbreak of anthrax cases in the fall of 2001, the disease had not been a significant public-health problem in the United States since the 1920s and 30s, when cases were reported among wool workers. As a result, tests to diagnose anthrax had not moved much beyond growing bacteria on a culture plate. “There wasn’t much anthrax around, and public-health infrastructure and knowledge of this disease had faded,” explains Andrew Levin ’76, chief executive officer and scientific director of Immunetics, Inc., the Boston-based immuno-diagnostic company he founded in 1987.

Within hours of the first recent confirmed case of anthrax, the Centers for Disease Control asked Levin, who had developed diagnostic tests for HIV and Lyme disease, whether he could develop a simple, fast diagnostic test for anthrax — in other words, a test to bring anthrax diagnostics into the modern world. At the time, the tests being used were too slow in producing results, which could prove disastrous should an epidemic occur.

“Anthrax is a tough problem because we don’t want to give inaccurate results that will scare people,” Levin says. “At the same time, we need something that is relatively fast, does not take days to run, and would give a solid yes-or-no result.” His new diagnostic tool, which detects an immune response to the disease by identifying antibodies in the blood, combines the simplicity of a screening test with the accuracy of a confirmatory test, merging what in the past had been two separate tests.

The Federal Drug Administration approved the test in June. Now Levin is working with the CDC to facilitate distribution of the test around the U.S. through the Laboratory Response Network, a group of 150 labs equipped to respond quickly in case of a terrorist attack.

Levin, a biochemistry major with a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin, realized during a postdoctoral stint at Harvard University that he was more interested in the public-health issues connected with infectious diseases than in basic research.

“I like the idea of trying to do something helpful and productive in public health,” Levin says. In addition to developing tests for well-known diseases such as HIV, Lyme disease, and anthrax, Levin’s company has created tests for little-known Third World diseases, including cysticercosis, a disease caused by a tapeworm. The company currently is working on a test for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Levin believes that the field of diagnostics, which is a smaller field than drug or vaccine development, is beginning to get more attention, particularly as infectious diseases such as SARS and West Nile virus cause public alarm. “People are beginning to see that these things don’t go away and every year brings something new,” he says.

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a writer in Cambridge, Mass.