Spring 2014

M. Allen Northrup

A Trailblazer of Personalized Medicine

M. Allen Northrup

WHEN IT COMES TO the future of health care, M. Allen Northrup (‘81, Biological Sciences) is a firm believer in personalized medicine.

Northrup is a biomedical engineer in the highly specialized fields of microtechnology and microfluidics, where he develops technology and fluids on a microscopic scale.

His most recent project: a miniature chip that would allow patients to test their blood from the privacy of their own home. “Imagine being able to monitor your own response to chemotherapy for breast or prostate cancer,” Northrup says. “The trend in personalized medicine is heading that way.”

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Northrup has been the inventor on 54 issued patents. For his contributions to the field of biomedicine, he was recently inducted into the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

After earning a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of California, Davis, Northrup collaborated with a team that invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)—a technique that won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

PCR is a revolutionary technique for quickly copying DNA that has been used to map the human genome. Northrup took that technology a step further by transferring PCR to a microfabricated chip, creating what he calls a “mini DNA copying machine.” Today, a derivative of his PCR chip has been commercialized and is used in everything from paternity tests, cancer diagnostics, biowarfare agent detection, and in the detection of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and sepsis.

These days, Northrup spends his time advising small and large companies on biodetection, business and intellectual property. He also mentors and advises young entrepreneurs.

Northrup co-founded two microtechnology companies—Cepheid in 1996 and MicroFluidic Systems in 2001. In 2000, while at Cepheid he invented an Anthrax detection system that is used by the U.S. Postal Service.

For Northrup, it’s a way to give back, while staying involved in a field he loves.

“There’s a lot of potential for innovative technology out there,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding it.”