NASA to Healthcare
Episode 581

Adrian Ponce, Founder and Chief Science Officer at Verrix

NASA to Healthcare

In this episode, we are privileged to host Dr. Adrian Ponce, the Manager of the Higher Education Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also the founder and Chief Science Officer of Verrix, a medical device company leveraging cutting edge technology to help protect patients from healthcare-associated infections.

Dr. Ponce talks about how his company is seeking to ensure health care facilities are using sterile products. He shares about his fascinating work in NASA, his company’s current stage in the developing process, the need for improved infection and disease prevention, and the fun and challenging aspects of working in a business of microbiology.

It’s a great interview, one you shouldn’t miss. Tune in and learn more about the fascinating work Dr. Ponce and his team at Verrix do!

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NASA to Healthcare

Episode 581

Dr. Adrian Ponce

Dr. Adrian Ponce is Founder and Chief Science Officer at Verrix. He received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cal Tech for his research on electron transfer of proteins and water. He works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an investigation scientist on Moxey, an instrument on the next Mars rover mission that will convert some of the Martian carbon dioxide atmospheres to oxygen in preparation for future human missions to Mars. His research interests have taken him to various extreme environments, including Atacama Desert, Chile, and Kilimanjaro glaciers which serve as Mars analog sites where he investigates microbial survival in extreme environments. In the laboratory, his group simulates the environments of Mars and Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, to assess the survival and probability of growth of microbes in these environments. He is also currently investigating the viability decay of bacterial spores embedded in Arctic and Antarctic ices to probe the longevity of the most durable forms of life. Dr. Ponce invented an endoscope, which enables real-time monitoring of sterilization processes.

NASA to Healthcare with Adrian Ponce, Founder and Chief Science Officer at Verrix transcript powered by Sonix—easily convert your audio to text with Sonix.

NASA to Healthcare with Adrian Ponce, Founder and Chief Science Officer at Verrix was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the latest audio-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors. Sonix is the best audio automated transcription service in 2020. Our automated transcription algorithms works with many of the popular audio file formats.

Saul Marquez:
Welcome back to the Outcomes Rocket, Sal Marquez is here and today I have the privilege of hosting Dr. Adrian Ponce. He’s the founder and chief science officer at Verrix. Dr. Ponce received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cal Tech for his research on electron transfer of proteins and water and works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as investigation scientist on Moxey, an instrument on the next Mars rover mission that will convert some of the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere to oxygen and preparation for a future human missions to Mars. His research interests have taken him to various extreme environments, including Atacama Desert, Chile and Kilimanjaro glaciers which serve as Mars analog sites where he investigates microbial survival in extreme environments in the laboratory. His group simulates the environments of Mars and Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, to assess the survival and probability of growth of microbes in these environments. He is also currently investigating the viability decay of bacterial spores embedded in Arctic and Antarctic ices to probe the longevity of the most durable forms of life. Dr. Ponce invented an endoscope, which enables real time monitoring of sterilization processes. And his Cal Tech startup Verrix which we’re going to dive into today, uses this technology to improve human health by mitigating microbial contamination with the fastest and most direct biological measurements of the spore viability. He also manages the JPL student programs. That brings more than a thousand interns to JPL for research experiences. You know, today is going to be a great talk and and with the fascinating background of of Dr. Ponce, I want to welcome him today to share with us what’s going on at Verrix and and where the future of these cross vertical technologies could help us improve outcomes in health care and beyond. So, such a pleasure to have you here with us, Adrian.

Adrian Ponce:
Thank you. And good morning. It’s a pleasure to be on.

Saul Marquez:
Absolutely. Now, your background is fascinating. I mean, just thinking about studying these extreme environments on Earth to simulate the environments of Mars and Jupiter. How did you get into that and how did it convert into health care?

Adrian Ponce:
Yeah, so that’s an interesting story, I think. I started working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2000, so many moons ago. And JPL is, of course, one of the NASA centers and it’s responsible for the robotic exploration of space. And so this field of astrobiology started to come into focus for me. And I’m a chemist by training right.. And so I learned about what the search of life was all about and also some of the measures that are taken to ensure that we don’t contaminate places like Mars with Earth microbes. And so as I started to learn more about that, I started to understand some of the technology gaps that were present. And some of my background actually in chemistry enabled me to formulate some new ideas about how to understand some of the how the toughest forms of life, like bacterial spores, can survive and even thrive in extreme environments on Earth, like the Atacama Desert and Kilimanjaro, which you mentioned in the intro. And that then in turn helps inform us as the NASA community to where we might search for life on places like Mars. And so that was kind of the beginning of it for me about almost 20 years ago now.

Saul Marquez:
Well, it’s it’s fascinating. And, you know, as we think about these unique perspectives that you have, a lot of the talk around health care is like how can we learn from the other ills of industry and exploration and research? And so you’re such a great example of being able to borrow from one and apply it to another. Can you help us understand how that came about and what the ties to what you were doing?

Adrian Ponce:
There are sure to be kind of central player in all of the toughest form of microbial life, the bacterial spore already mentioned, which is of interest to astrobiology Right. because it’s the toughest form of life. And, you know, how does it survive in extreme environments, informing the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. But there’s also this idea of protecting those environments on Mars and Europa, which is a moon around Jupiter with a liquid water ocean bigger than the size of the Earth’s oceans. But the idea is to protect those oceans. And the way we do that is very similar to what hospitals do for their sterility assurance to mitigate things like hospital acquired infections. And basically what we do is we use this toughest form of. If the for the central player in all this, for NASA, we use it to spacecraft sterility assurance, so we have requirements that the surfaces of spacecraft that are going to Mars have to have less than a certain threshold of the spores on their surfaces. And so we use traditional microbiology techniques and so on to to verify those that were below those thresholds. And similarly, in hospitals, Right., you know, using cleaning methods and autoclaves and sterilizers and so on. And the question there is similar in that, you know, how do you know that you’ve been successful and sterilizing? So sterility assurance is based on basically using these indicator organisms, bacterial spores, specifically those spores from Cuba. Listeria Thermopolis, which is kind of a very heat tolerant microbe that thrives in high temperatures. It can survive in boiling water, for example, and basically use those indicator organisms in bio indicators that are used to basically certify to verify the steriliser runs have been successful. And so that’s the kind of connection between the NASA work and then the startup that came about, I guess it’s about eight years ago. So I kicked it off. And that that’s been evolving nicely to the present stage.

Saul Marquez:
That’s great. Great work. And it’s all about confirmation Right. like it’s about letting people know that you what you’re using in your surgery today is sterile, correct?

Adrian Ponce:
It’s like and it’s such a critical problem because of the number of hospital acquired infections are so high. So is what the folks in sterility assurance departments and, you know, sterile processing departments do is so critical.

Saul Marquez:
And how about on the you know, because a lot of a lot of devices and consumables also come sterile pact. Do you guys play a role on the on the device side of things?

Adrian Ponce:
Yeah, I mean, that’s a kind of a pipeline product for us. So our focus right now is specifically for the sterile processing department and the bio indicators used for those sterilizers, for the ethylene oxide and other materials that are used for packaging the Single-Use sterile material. There’s also an application there. And, you know, that’s another one that we hope to tackle as soon as we put this one in the hands of the speak.

Saul Marquez:
Love it. Yeah, it’s fascinating. And the applications are pretty broad right now. You guys are focused on the provider space and in that speed area. Tell us what makes you guys different or better than than what’s available today?

Adrian Ponce:
Well, I mean, we recognize that there’s a need for speed and speed. And, you know, the power is always clamoring to get their equipment as soon as possible. And there’s a need to kind of turn over these surgical suites. What we’re hoping to introduce is that we’re going to look at the earliest stage in the life cycle of these spores during germination stage one, basically. And so that’s the fastest answer you can get and still work with the actual biological entity. And we’re actually going to do it using a technique of of imaging and counting and enumerating spores, as opposed to what kind of the typical technology is looking at the intensity of fluorescence and the threshold. So being able to count the actual organisms and seeing them, as they say, seeing is believing, I think provides an extra measure of confidence in the results. And of course, with sterility assurance, assurance is part of the word Right. or part of the term. And and so providing that extra assurance, I think is critical new capability that we want to introduce.

Saul Marquez:
Very clear. And so as we think about how this translates into outcomes and potentially case reduction in health acquired infections, have you guys done any any work there or any opportunities to dive into that?

Adrian Ponce:
Yeah, I mean, those are hard to come by to trace the root cause of hospital acquired infections. Not many of them are actually traced to failures of sterilizers. But nonetheless, you know, that’s because the hospitals are doing such a good job and the machines are very reliable. But nonetheless, there’s a requirement to use biological indicators. And by keeping that technology updated and current and making it easier to use getting faster results and having this kind of enumeration capability know to get more assurance, as I said earlier, I think provides the next incremental progress. There may even be a game changing, hopefully, for the species managers and their technicians.

Saul Marquez:
Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s a great. Great opportunity to explore ways that we could do better. I mean, counting and enumerating versus kind of just seeing an intensity seems a lot more exact to me. How would you say you guys have been able to apply what you do and you guys in hospitals or where were you at in the process?

Adrian Ponce:
Oh, that’s a great question. So we’re at the stage where we locks the design of the product in the development. We’re meeting all of the requirements, doing a lot of testing and verification experiments, and there are a lot of lessons learned there. But we’re kind of on final approach to get the data set that we need to submit to the FDA now in the coming months here. And then the goal is obviously to get certified by the FDA using the five 10 K process based on the predicate indicator device. And once we get certified, then we go into marketing and manufacturing and distribution and and so on. So that’s that’s the road ahead that we envision following.

Saul Marquez:
Love it. And as people are listening to this right. many, many leaders of organizations like what would your call to action be to them? An invitation,

Adrian Ponce:
The call to action? Well, I mean, it’s new technology and the departments are probably very conservative in adopting new technologies. So, you know, the call to action is really to kind of look at the new claims, the new capabilities. And hopefully we can make the case successfully that the benefits of using this technology will really weren’t there consideration and giving it a try?

Saul Marquez:
Yeah, I think that’s a great call out as we look at ourselves getting procedures, especially in this COVID era, Right., where we’re even more concerned about infection and disease prevention, we have to start thinking about other options. And I mean, you’re talking about the toughest form of life here, Right. those bacterial spores, just being able to use that same technology to disinfect these these vessels in understanding how we disinfect these things that go into our bodies. It’s a great opportunity for us to take a look at that. And as you guys have been building the model and moving it forward, Adrian, what would you say has been a setback and maybe some some lessons that came out of that setback?

Adrian Ponce:
Well, I mean, that’s new technology and it’s challenging technology. I mean, we’ve really pushed the envelope of what is possible from a point of view of material science and specifically that we’re talking about. You mentioned it’s the toughest form of microbial life, Right.. So microbiology, if you’re applying it to be analytical, is typically, you know, hard to work with. Getting reproducibility within an order of magnitude is typically considered good. That’s a challenge just by the nature of the business of microbiology. But in the material science area, we have to find materials that survive the high heat of the autoclave, but still remain optically transparent so that we can image and enumerate those surviving. Because if they survive an autoclave run and you know, that was quite a challenge to find the right material, did a lot of searching. It’s kind of like Edison finding all of the Right. filament that survives in the light bulb and keeps it glowing. So there’s was a bit of a there and that took a little bit longer than expected. And as you can imagine, in a startup environment, time is money. And so that that was a pretty big challenge. Another one is to verify requirements for bio indicators. You have to use this thing called a beer. And as pleasant as that may sound, it’s actually a bio indicator experiment resistor. So what it is, is a really fancy autoclave that’s like a Lamborghini and it can reach the temperature of the autoclave, let’s say one hundred and thirty five Celsius within ten seconds.

Saul Marquez:
Wow.

Adrian Ponce:
From start to finish and, and then hold it. And that is to very carefully control the thermal dosage that bio indicators experience. And so imagine this to show that our technology works, we have to start out with several hundred thousand living spores in our bio indicator. And then we have to apply the exact thermal dosage such that out of 100 hundred bio indicators that we put into that beer, that beer autoclave Right. 30 to 80 percent have at least one organism surviving. And so in other words, you have some that they’re all killed off and some that have one or more organism surviving and and that is dialed in and starting with hundreds of thousands of spores. And so that’s a really challenging experiment to do. You know, in terms of the mechanical engineering and of the beer and then also in terms of coupling that to the microbiology to dial in these individual spores, zeros and ones, you know, some of them are all dead and some of them have some survivors is a huge challenge experimentally. And so that’s been both challenging and a fun challenge to tackle.

Saul Marquez:
So, yeah, yeah. It’s all the fine tuning that it takes and the experimentation that it takes to have something like this work is oftentimes underappreciated. And sounds like you guys have been racking your brains and trying a bunch of stuff in this in this autoclave beer autoclave and finally getting close to to that final product. You know, it’s exciting. It’s exciting stuff. And if you think about what’s most exciting today, what would you say that is?

Adrian Ponce:
Yeah, I mean, just to your earlier point, you know, if it was easy, it would have been done already. Right. So this is what we’re doing is easy to bring this technology forward. But we have a great handle on it now. And I think we’re on this kind of final approach and especially critical to address. Those challenges that I talked about is having a hard working and creative team that kind of sticks with the challenge Right. is that persistence and perseverance to overcome what initially might seem as insurmountable obstacles? You know, that’s the key to success and overcoming them as a hard working and creative team that sticks with it. But in terms of what I’m excited about is now that we’ve kind of gone through this this challenge that I described, I think we’re at the cusp of verifying the requirements, showing that the claims that we’re making valid and and ultimately getting this FDA clearance that we’re working towards. I think that’s what I’m really most excited about right now, is taking something that started in my garage literally with some EPA funding eight years ago and bringing it now to a point where it might actually help the EPA staff and management and then ultimately patients Right.. And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. And going through that end to end process and getting close to that, a point in my life that’s been just really exciting and it’s been fun to see and challenging, but fun and exciting to get to this point. So we’re going to push through all of it.

Saul Marquez:
Yeah.The life cycle of a device or are an indicator like this is long and and so, yeah, your work, when they call it.

Adrian Ponce:
They call it the Valley of Death Right. you kind of show that you have proof of principle, but then to make a medical device, a biomedical device that the FDA certifies to get to that point, that’s what they call the Valley of death. Right. trying to do that. Then we can see the oasis on the other side. We’re ready.

Saul Marquez:
You’re ready.

Adrian Ponce:
We’re hungry and ready.

Saul Marquez:
Love it. And you know what? I’m sure the the the beneficiaries of this patient’s health systems, speed departments are are going to also be ready for something new to do things better if you had to to recommend a good read to us. Dr. Ponce, what would you what would you recommend as far as books for us? Just one or two books.

Adrian Ponce:
Oh, goodness. Let’s see. I’ve been so busy. I haven’t read much lately, but I’ve been reading a book about The Tree of Life recently, and I have the book now, so I want to make sure I get the quote right. But it’s basically about how using, you know, first DNA structure, recognition, Right. and then sequencing technology. So it’s called The Tangled Tree, A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen. I’m just in the middle of reading that, and it’s just fascinating to see how the technology of molecular biology that was started to develop really in the seventies and matured in the 80s and 90s and now with CRISPR and gene editing and so on is really, really a paradigm shift in our understanding about how life works and how it evolved and how it might inform even the emergence for life on Earth, you know, from the first the last universal common ancestor that is kind of a hypothetical organism from which we all sprang forth ultimately. And so I think it’s a really fascinating book and I can recommend that for sure of it.

Saul Marquez:
The tangled tree and great opportunity to dive into into the sort of the biology and the beginnings of where we came from. Absolutely. Very good. Doctor friends say, well, this this is fascinating work that you’re up to. And folks to get a full transcript. My conversation here with Dr. Ponza and the work being done at various, which obviously got a very X.com that’s very X.com, but also go to outcomes rocket that health and in the search for type in various V.R. I x and you’ll find all of the links associated with this podcast, as well as a full transcript and short notes of our discussion today. Such an interesting discussion and I really appreciate your perspective. Dr. Ponce, can you give us a closing thought? And then the best place where the listeners could continue the conversation with you, if that’s an opportunity.

Adrian Ponce:
Sure. I mean, look, right now we’re going through this COVID-19 pandemic and I’m thinking about the folks working in spivvy and hospitals in general, really at the frontline. And what an interesting perspective I think might be is that now with this pandemic, about one hundred percent of the world Right. has been sensitized about the need for hygiene and unsterile practices and so on. And I think that’s a really interesting point of view, is usually a speed, folks. I think in talking to many of my colleagues there and feel a little bit underappreciated, but now I think the whole world is paying attention to the types of practices that are being performed in those speedy areas of operation. And so I think that will stimulate this kind of recognition. And the importance of sterile processing will catalyze future entrepreneurs to contribute to, you know, other solutions that will help keep people safe from from infection. So I think that’s, I think, a good perspective, you know, that despite the pandemic and all of the bad things that are happening and ultimately it’s at times like this when creativity and entrepreneurism steps in and provides solutions for the future. So I think that’s kind of an optimistic view of it.

Saul Marquez:
It is. It is optimistic, but I’m I tend to lean on the side of optimism. And I do also believe that we will come out of this stronger and better as a health care community, but also as a as a human human race. And so I just want to say thanks again for sharing your insights here with us and leaving us with that inspiring message and looking forward to staying in touch.

Adrian Ponce:
Yeah. Thanks so much for the time and for listening.

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Things You’ll Learn

  • Look at new claims and new capabilities and give it a try.
  • The key to success and overcoming obstacles is a hard-working and creative team that sticks with it.
  • Learn more about microbial survival in the sterilization process
  • Learn from the other aisles of industry and apply it to another

 

Reference
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory