Dr. Benjamin Pinsky
Dr. Benjamin Pinsky (Steve Fisch)

The Stanford test gained FDA approval on March 4.

Growing up in Farmington Hills, Benjamin Pinsky, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and medicine at Stanford University Medical Center, as well as medical director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory for Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health, didn’t necessarily have an interest in studying the behavior of viruses. All he knew was that cell biology fascinated him.

It was after he graduated from Harrison High School in Farmington Hills in 1992 and went to Harvard University that he became interested in biochemistry and molecular biology. There, he received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1996. He spent a few years at Harvard working in labs and obtained a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology in 2005 and his medical degree in 2007 at the University of Washington.

“I got super interested in clinical microbiology and virology,” he said, adding that he began to develop viral detection tests. His interest is in the clinical impact of clinical virology testing.

That interest, paired with assistance from his colleagues at Stanford’s Virology Clinical Lab, helped the team develop and gain FDA approval for one of the country’s first COVID-19 detection tests.

“We were pretty early on this,” he said. “I saw what was going on in China in January. The first [COVID-19 genome] sequences came out in January.

“My lab adapted [a World Health Organization test] to the instruments we had available in our clinical laboratory. We had the test up and running in early February,” he added.
The Stanford test gained FDA approval on March 4. The Stanford lab, under Pinsky’s direction, tested thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area.

Pinsky, who also holds the title of associate director of clinical pathology for COVID-19 testing at Stanford, said they are down to testing about 1,000 people each day. However, the lab is ramping up to test around 6,000 people each day as the influenza season begins and schools and businesses reopen.

Stanford’s test is a nasal swab test, which can detect the virus in less than 24 hours, although Pinsky said turnaround time varies depending on test volume and patient population. For patients from the emergency room who are being admitted to the hospital and are exhibiting signs of the coronavirus, the need for results is more urgent.

“We’d like to test people as quickly as possible,” he said.

Prior to the Pandemic

Pinsky said his residency training at Stanford Hospital during the H1N1 virus, a swine flu pandemic that emerged in 2009, prepared him to develop a test to detect the current coronavirus.

“H1N1 was as widespread but not as devastating as the number of people who have died because of COVID-19,” he said. “That prepared me for this. I’m not surprised that this [current pandemic] would occur sometime in my lifetime. I’m glad I had the experience with the H1N1 flu.”

In addition to his and his team’s work in developing and administering the coronavirus test, they have published about 15 articles in scientific journals about their work studying the new virus.

“We’re trying to contribute to the literature and our knowledge of the infection,” he said, adding that most of the lab’s work has been in diagnostic development.

Additionally, the team published findings on the markers of COVID-19 disease severity, as well as newer work they’ve done on novel diagnostic and prognostic information from patients with COVID-19.

Although scientists have the original SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) viruses to consider when approaching the study of COVID-19, what makes this novel coronavirus so devastating is that it is more transmissible to humans than SARS or MERS, according to Pinsky.

“The other coronaviruses had very high mortality but fewer cases,” he said. “That’s something that’s really new … It can go through a population and cause such devastation. It’s a generation-defining event.”

Pinsky, who lives in San Francisco, has family who live in the Metro Detroit area. His parents, Stuart, a retired attorney, and mother Roberta, live in Farmington Hills and his paternal grandmother, Bernice, is still going strong at 94. Pinsky grew up as a member of Congregation Beth Ahm.

Dad Stuart Pinsky speaks about his son’s accomplishments with tremendous pride, including Benjamin’s work in South America and Africa in treating individuals, including orphans in Zimbabwe, who had acquired viruses.

Stuart also mentioned his son’s patent for methods in detecting dengue, a mosquito-borne viral disease.

“We’re two very proud parents in Farmington Hills,” said his mom and dad.

Meanwhile, Pinsky said his clinical laboratory functions 24/7 to continue research and testing services. He added that the scientific community and the general population can take away lessons from the current pandemic, namely that all people need to be mindful of how viruses evolve, how quickly they can be transmitted from person to person, how they affect health detrimentally, and how they can jump from animals to humans.

“There will be a lot of lessons learned on how to handle future pandemics,” Pinsky said.

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