Meet the UQ graduate behind the first COVID-19 home diagnostic tool
Dr Sean Parsons saw firsthand the huge impact of a pandemic when he was only a few years out of UQ and working as a young doctor in the emergency department of Caboolture Hospital.
What he saw on the frontline in 2009 was a system in crisis, barely coping with the large number of people presenting with suspected swine flu, whose symptoms could only be accurately diagnosed through sending samples to a laboratory from which they would return several days later.
In just over a decade since then, Parsons (Bachelor of Science (Honours) '01, Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery '05) has turned into an international medical entrepreneur – largely through the development of a rapid and accurate flu test.
So, when the world was hit by COVID-19 early last year, the now head of medical research company Ellume knew exactly what he had to do.
“During that first swine flu pandemic I found that the most effective tool to combat the virus was being able to accurately and quickly diagnose it,” he said.
“We had been researching a flu diagnostic for many years. So, when COVID-19 hit the world, we were easily able to switch our model to work on a quick and accurate diagnosis for that.”
The switch has paid off big-time for Ellume. The company was last year given emergency use authorisation by the US Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 home test, the first diagnostic tool that can be used completely at home by an individual without a prescription.
In February this year, the US Department of Defense awarded a contract worth US$230 million (A$302 million) to Ellume to ramp up production of the home test kits.
The contract will help boost the number of tests in the US by 640,000 per day by the end of this year, with 8.5 million kits to be distributed directly by the US Government.
The kits will only be available in the US, with Australian authorities yet to approve at-home testing.
Ellume staff working in the assembly room.
Ellume staff working in the assembly room.
When announcing the authorisation, the FDA said the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test results are delivered in as little as 20 minutes to individuals via their smartphone.
The test uses an analyser that connects with a software application on a smartphone to help users perform the test and interpret results.
Individuals are required to input their postcode and date of birth, with optional fields including name and e-mail address. The results are reported where appropriate to public health authorities to monitor disease prevalence.
Ellume expects to produce more than 3 million tests by March this year.
There is huge potential for this product. Currently, people need to travel to a test site where they then undergo nasal and throat swabs, which are then sent off to a laboratory for analysis – a process that generally takes more than 24 hours.
But the Ellume COVID-19 home test means that people can do it by themselves in their own home. They still need to take a nasal swab – but not as deep as traditional tests – and they can be portably analysed. Effectively, people can self-diagnose through their smartphones.
US authorities have pointed out that this is a potential 'game changer' in that if people are diagnosed quickly, they can then self-isolate quickly, which can in turn cut back on community transmission. This is especially relevant in the US, where the death rates from the coronavirus are around one in every 1000 people.
For Parsons, it has been a seamless if spectacular rise over 20 years from university student to doctor to international entrepreneur.
He attended UQ between 1998 and 2005, departing from the St Lucia campus with a Bachelor of Science (First Class Honours) with a dual major in Physiology and Biomedical Science, as well as a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.
He also has a strong family connection to UQ – his grandfather, Ralph Parsons, was a physics professor in the 1970s and later became Chairman of the Academic Board and then Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at UQ.
The early years of this century were a good time to be at UQ and to be interested in biotechnology. In 1998, the Queensland Government had instigated a 'Smart State' strategy, which aimed to provide a better-trained workforce in emerging areas such as biotechnology, so that the state was less dependent on industries such as mining and tourism.
The 'Smart State' strategy was especially evident at UQ. In 2000, the Institute for Molecular Biology – now the Institute for Molecular Biosciences – was opened, while in 2003, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and the Queensland Brain Institute also opened on UQ’s St Lucia campus.
“It was fairly visionary stuff from Peter Beattie (then Queensland Premier) and others,” Parsons said.
“The idea was to get great science at the universities, spinning off from that, would be new technology companies, and the vital part was that the companies would stay in Queensland.
“I have strong views about it actually. It’s very tempting when spin-offs develop new technology and one of the big overseas companies comes in and buys it out. I know it’s often a good deal for shareholders but it’s not getting the best value.”
Ellume founder and UQ graduate Dr Sean Parsons in the lab.
Ellume founder and UQ graduate Dr Sean Parsons in the lab.
But while Parsons absorbed the developing biotechnology ethos, his time at UQ was not spent just studying.
He jokes that this is the second time he has been in Contact magazine, the first time being in 1999 when he coached a UQ Rowing Club eight, which competed internationally.
Being on the water also changed his life when he met his future wife, Mirja Moenninghoff – a German woman who was in Australia to study – at the UQ Sailing Club.
She has, among other qualifications from other universities, a Master of Business from UQ in 2004. She previously worked in consumer marketing for companies such as Goodman Fielder and is now the chief marketing officer for Ellume.
“I do the science and she does the marketing,” he laughs.
Even now, Ellume still has close connections with UQ and, as a highly competitive international biotech, encourages its workforce to seek further qualification. Two of its employees, Yasunthara Balalle and Taylor Beckett, are currently studying for master's degrees in biotechnology while still working at Ellume.
Beckett has been working for Ellume for four years after collecting a Bachelor of Science (Honours) at UQ in 2016, and she now works in Ellume’s research and development team studying various infectious diseases.
“It’s a simple process – we tend to do the experiments first, then go into the lab, and then we have meetings about it. There’s a lot of collaboration, which is why we have so many meetings,” Beckett said.
“There are a lot of technical documents too.”
But back to 2006, when the newly minted Parsons worked at Royal Brisbane Hospital as a young intern before working in other parts of the state, and then landed at Caboolture Hospital in 2009 – just as the swine flu pandemic hit.
For the young doctor, working in an Emergency Department at the height of a pandemic was a crucial experience. It was, for a start, extremely busy, as scores of patients presented with flu symptoms, and mostly it took several days for laboratory tests to return results.
The small number of rapid flu tests were neither accurate nor reliable.
A solution was required: an accurate, rapid test – but with none on the market, Parsons started working on one himself. He could see the obvious demand for such a product, and launched Ellume in 2010, while still working as a doctor.
The fledgling company received a huge boost in 2011 when Parsons met Paul Darrouzet, who made a significant financial investment in the company and then became the company’s chair, putting it on a more commercial footing.
At the time, Darrouzet had developed a coal mine in central Queensland which he had then sold to a large overseas mining company.
But he also had a keen interest in medical research, having been a director of Wesley Medical Research since 2011 and chair of disability support group the Lifestream Foundation since 2004.
With a more business-oriented structure behind him, Parsons started building up the business and slowly began winding back his medical commitments.
The early years were hard work with little signs of rapid progress. But this changed when Ellume produced a quick and rapid diagnostic for flu, which it sold through a partnership with major international drug company GlaxoSmithKilne.
The next product was a similar quick and rapid test for tuberculosis, which was developed and marketed through a partnership with another large international company, Qiagen.
This was slightly different to the flu test in that it required a doctor to take and incubate a blood test overnight, but it made life considerably easier for Qiagen, which already had a large market share but could now service that market more efficiently.
So, while Ellume was not terribly well known internationally, it was developing a reputation for successfully delivering a niche product – a quick and accurate diagnostic tool that anyone with a smartphone could use, without the need for a prescription. It had a simple focus – the accurate diagnosis of common infectious diseases.
There is very little silver lining on the dark cloud of COVID-19, but for Ellume, the company was in the right place at the right time.
The past few months have been extremely busy for the company, as the world has been looking for a rapid and accurate test for COVID-19, and Ellume seemed to be in the best position to provide one.
Governments suddenly saw the potential in the Brisbane company which recently built a large manufacturing facility at Richlands in Brisbane’s outer west.
In October, the US Government awarded the company US$30 million – about A$40 million – through its National Institute of Health Rapid Diagnostics initiative; while in December, the Queensland Government gave the company a grant to help expand its Richlands operation, which is already the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
It hasn’t been a restful holiday season for Parsons or the rest of the company as Ellume gears up to produce 100,000 tests a day from January and more than 250,000 tests per day from March. Overall, the company plans to manufacture and deliver more than 20 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests in the first six months of this year.
Who’d have thought that the government rhetoric about being a 'Smart State' at the turn of the century would ring true two decades later? Ellume shows that Queensland can be a Smart State, producing internationally competitive products for which there is a high demand – from Richlands. And saving a lot of lives as well.