As the ship keeps sinking, Theranos hasn’t stopped shuffling the deck chairs.
The Silicon Valley company that promised to revolutionize blood testing has had so many setbacks lately that it’s getting hard to keep track. Theranos is under criminal and civil investigation. Federal regulators are considering revoking the license of its California lab and banning its chief executive from the industry for two years. Just this week, news broke that it had voided two years of test results from its signature blood-testing devices.
Yet for all the bad news, Theranos is doggedly putting out word that it’s still moving ahead full steam. It has nearly 200 job ads on its website for positions in California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, where it reportedly plans to open a third lab. Theranos now employs a little under 1,000 workers. It’s unclear how many workers may have left in recent months — a spokeswoman said there has been no mass exodus — but the job postings suggests it’s looking to grow its workforce almost 20 percent from its current size, even as observers write its obituary.
Among the open positions being advertised: two assistants to CEO Elizabeth Holmes, one personal and one executive assistant. Candidates are expected to exercise “a high degree of discretion and confidentiality.”
Theranos is making high-level moves, too: Its Number 2, Sunny Balwani, is leaving the company. Theranos buried that news at the end of a press release announcing it was giving new titles to a couple of its existing advisers and adding a new one. Last month the company also added six new medical advisers.
That means Theranos now has 19 scientists, business executives, and assorted big-name hotshots sitting on various advisory boards.
The company is promoting the moves as a sign it’s moving forward with fresh energy. “We’re excited about the new phase of our company,” said Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for Theranos.
Buchanan said the wealth of job opportunities listed on Theranos’s website don’t indicate that workers have been fleeing company — but rather, indicate a shift in focus. Theranos is putting fresh emphasis on research and development and clinical laboratories, she said. “With that comes a need for additional expertise in those fields,” Buchanan said, “and we’re looking for great team members to join us in our mission.”
STAT reached out to a number of Theranos’s newest advisers but none responded to questions about whether they’d met yet as a group or how they’re trying to fix the company’s problems. It’s unclear whether they had any input on the company’s decision to throw out two years of test results and issue tens of thousands of corrected reports, a move first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The newest arrival to the constellation of Theranos advisers is Fabrizio Bonanni, a retired senior executive at Amgen who specialized in operations and quality control — clearly a pain point for Theranos. Since leaving Amgen, Bonanni has joined the board of four small life science outfits — including a biotech incubator — but in terms of both ambition and notoriety, they pale in comparison to Theranos, which was once valued at a whopping $9 billion.
The six new scientific advisers announced last month include respected scientists and doctors, hailing from top institutions like Washington University, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. Theranos said they would inspect the company’s clinical laboratories and work to implement new procedures.
But questions remain about whether these advisers will be enough to help the company turn around. Another unknown: Whether they’ll try, or be able, to convince the company to publish its results, something many critics have demanded.
(Holmes is slated to unveil some data this summer before the American Association for Clinical Chemistry. One of her new scientific advisers, Susan Evans, is a former president of that group.)
The uncertainty about the ultimate impact of the new advisers stems in part from the fact that many of Theranos’s recent moves don’t amount to much more than shuffling.
Take Dr. William Foege, an 80-year-old epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. He started advising Theranos in 2014, when the company was at its peak, valued higher than any other venture-backed company in health care.
As Theranos has come under fire in recent months, Foege’s official role at the company has changed again and again. He was bumped off the company’s board of directors. Added to a new board of “counselors.” Added to a new board of medical advisors. And then, last week, added back to the board of directors.
Meanwhile, fresh questions are being raised about the company’s basic premise that making blood tests cheaper, easier, and more readily available could revolutionize medical care.
“Even if the tests were accurate, when they are performed in massive scale and multiple times, the possibility of causing substantial harm from widespread testing is very real, as errors accumulate with multiple testing,” wrote Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor who studies scientific robustness, in an opinion piece published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.