A Wave of Testing Advances or Just a Drop in the Bucket?

Hello again everyone and welcome back! Thanks for joining last time in my discussion of social media as an inexhaustible force in professional development. This month…something different…

Yes, indeed, this month’s piece from me to you is a well-deserved break from your regularly scheduled pandemic reading. Consider this your COVID content caesura. Whatever will we discuss without the virus at the forefront of all of our media channels? What then could possibly hold our attention, satisfy our craving for knowledge and professional development, and quench our thirst for lab-driven news?

Liquid biopsies. Obviously. Get it? Thirst? Quench? Yea? I’m sorry, let’s just jump in…

Image 1. This is totally what happens during liquid biopsies, can you guys not visually see DNA? You might need better centrifuges/brighter bulbs—talk about your 10,000 ft. diagnosis, right? (Stock image: Cancer.org)

In my recent social media scroll-binging (which is absolutely normal nowadays, don’t judge) a small story about a published article in JAMA appeared nestled gently between powerful protest content, pandemic virology, and 2020 politics. The article, which was just a small summary of a study in Science that combined liquid biopsy testing with PET-CT imaging to screen and guide interventions for a variety of cancers detected among over 10,000 recruited patients. Detected cancers included anything from solid masses to lymphoma and were found from thyroids to the ovaries. Translation: earlier, more comprehensive detection of malignant neoplasms of all sorts ….*drum-roll, please* ….BY BLOOD TEST! If you’re not impressed with this outright, then don’t fret. This kind of lab testing technology is some Penn & Teller level medical lab science, and I’m very excited about it! I could do a whole talk on this, a professional one, a TEDx one even…scroll to timestamp 4:50:00—of course I’m gonna plug the TEDx talk here. You know me.

Image 2. Remember your A-B-P’s: Always be promoting. Like the TEDx talk I gave, where I talked a bit about liquid biopsies; I don’t know if told you that I did that … (Source: TEDx)

What’s a liquid biopsy anyway?

That’s a great question, I’m glad you asked. Basically, think of it as the pinnacle of precision medicine—the gate key for all diagnoses and prognoses for an individualized treatment regimen based on the principles of known mutagens and detectable proteins and particles. Put plainly, a simple blood test that tests your blood (or other body fluid) for specific biomarkers to clue us in on the presence of an insidious malignancy. What kind of markers? Circulating tumor cells, micro-amounts of relevant RNA, vesicles, modified platelets, and other parts of cells, specific proteins—the list is growing. New concept, right? Not exactly, we’ve known about circulating tumor cells for at least 70 years now (nope, not a typo) but we haven’t been able to accurately hunt for them. We’ve had a concept of this sort of testing since the 70’s but have had a hard time implementing its clinical utility.

Image 3. A clinical lab. Somewhere. Circa 1975. To be a fly on the wall when they decided to skip gas biopsies and jump straight from solid tissue to liquid—what a concept! (Source: Univ. Texas at Austin, College of Health Sciences, historical photo of flu drug development at Memorial Sloan Kettering, NY)

Until the present day. Much like PCR, NGS, MALI-ToF, specialized mass spectrometry, and other awesome tools in our clinical arsenal, the ability is surpassing the paradigm. Whoa—philosophy check: are we moving too fast? Is this a reckless exercise? Should we do more research? No, no, and yes (obviously, always). Liquid biopsies have had pre-Wright brother success in getting airborne, so I’m recruiting all you readers out there to get excited with me and garner interest. Previous limitations might have meant we needed histological diagnosis first—I see you, everyone on the AP side… but these papers I’m showing you all today say basically three things: (1) our technology for liquid biopsy is getting better, (2) we might not need any previous test/section and could use liquid biopsy as a screening tool, (3) combined with imaging studies, this could be highly predictive and clinically useful.

The published study said what…?

Okay, let me show you the papers in the order I saw them: the JAMA article was just a primer in their Biotech Innovations magazine, a summary of an interesting development in liquid biopsies. They referenced the recent study in Science and discussed how 26 of the 10,000 women aged 65-75 were confirmed from liquid biopsy (LB) to imaging with PET-CT and, ultimately, biopsy to conclude. It said that the “blood test combined with the PET-CT had a 99.6% specificity and a 15.6% sensitivity…” with more being detected by LB at follow up. If those numbers triggered you as much as they did me, then of course you would have done what I did and followed the breadcrumbs.

Image 4. (LEFT) the three-tiered method of testing in the Detect-A Science paper and (RIGHT) the nearly 99% specificity of the CancerSEEK liquid biopsy modality in the second referenced Science article.

Que the Science study. In it, the authors presented their three-step testing process, using “Detect-A” LB for baselines. Ultimately 26 cancers in 10 organs were detected by just the blood test; this was out of a total of 96 cancers detected overall in the 10,000 participants either through liquid biopsy, current standards, or other investigative work ups. They did the math and showed that despite a sensitivity of 15.7% for the combined LB and PET-CT, the positive predictive value rose from 5.9% to 40.6% when you combined those two modalities. But the other statistics weren’t as impressive. Back to the JAMA article! The very last line said, “a newer version of the test that has a 99% sensitivity without confirmatory steps is in development…” Okay, now we’re cooking with gas—or testing with liquids—whatever: that’s the holy grail of CP testing 99% sensitivity, 99% specificity! Do tell!

Much ado about liquid—this was less impressive. This last line referenced a Science paper used “CancerSEEK” LB in 1,000 patients with sensitivities from 70-98%, but fantastic 99% specificity. Different panel, different cancers this time. Interesting to note, was that, applied to the specific incidence in the US population for the particular cancers detected by CancerSEEK, the sensitivity was around 55%. And, they managed to keep the cost relatively low at under $500 per test. (Sorry, if a red light just went on while you read this, CMS is probably recording now…) Well, this left me wanting. I’ve read so little about LB’s in recent years, is no one working on them? Well no, I was just busy, there’s tons of stuff out there, silly.

In just the past year alone, the American Journal of Clinical Pathology published 10 pieces on liquid biopsy cases, education, and utility for all kinds of malignancies from cytology to hemepath! AJCP—that’s us guys, it’s happening right here, right now! I told you we’ve got to do a PR run on this stuff and get it out there.

Is this the future? Are we in it now?

I’m happy to report that yes! This is indeed the future, well at least as thought of by the folks that conceptualized liquid biopsies 70 years ago. No hover-cars, or hover-boards, or hover-anything really (not without a lot of tech and work) but we’re closer to small advances in medical diagnostics!

Image 5. Maybe a better conceptual map of what liquid biopsies do. (Source: Gene Quantification)

Nature writer Catherine Alix-Panabieres put it very well when she wrote an Outlook piece this past March. On the one hand, liquid biopsies are a growing clinically useful tool in the synergy of addressing cancer in individualized medicine. On the other hand, we’ve known about this concept and have clearly been working on advancements in this testing technology for decades—it’s about time to come out of the shadow and push into widespread utility, including them in cancer algorithms, and redefining the ways in which cancer work-ups are developed in clinical trials, regulated by safety, and integrated into the toolkit of oncologic diagnostics. In my recent interview with People of Pathology Podcast show-runner, Dennis Strenk, I said we’re not quite ready to replace tissue biopsies yet—but are we close?

When do we go from pushing glass to pushing tubes?

See you next time!

References

Abbasi, J (2020) Blood Test Flags Multiple Cancers in Large Study, JAMA. 2020;323(22):2239. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.9266 → read it here

Alix-Panabieres, C (2020) The future of Liquid Biopsy, Nature 25 Mar 2020 579, S9 doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00844-5 → read it here

Bai, Y, and Haitao, Z (2018) Liquid biopsy in tumors: opportunities and challenges, Annals of Translational Medicine, 2018 Nov; 6 (Suppl 1): S89, doi: 10.21037/atm.2018.11.31 → read it here

CAP (2020) The ‘Liquid’ Biopsy, College of American Pathologists → read it here

Cohen, J, et al. (2018) Detection and localization of surgically resectable cancers with a multi-analyte blood test, Science 23 Feb 2018; Vol. 359, Issue 6378, pp. 926-930, doi: /science.aar3247 → read it here

Lennon, AM, et al. (2020) Feasibility of blood testing combined with PET-CT to screen for cancer and guide intervention, Science doi. 10.1126/science.abb9601 → read it here


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.

COVID-19 Patients with “Green Crystals of …” STOP! Please Don’t Call Them That

Blue-green cytoplasmic inclusions in neutrophils and monocytes are a novelty in hematology. It is rare to see these inclusions on peripheral smears, and when we do, there is excitement, but sadness too, because, when noted, they usually indicate a poor prognosis and impending death. Thus, we have heard them called “green crystals of death” or “death crystals.” I know I would not want to read a family member’s medical chart and see reference to “death crystals.” It’s an insensitive term, and one the medical community is trying to discourage. And, in fact, though it typically does indicate a poor prognosis, not all cases lead to death. In published reports, it has been shown that short term mortality in patients with these crystals is about 60%.1

These rare inclusions are refractile and irregular in shape, and are found in neutrophils, and occasionally in monocytes. Color seems to be subjective here. They call them green when inclusions in photos or cells I am looking at look very blue to me. The color perceived may depend on the type of stain (Giemsa, Wright or Wright-Giemsa) used and how fancy we get in color names and descriptions. Or, maybe I’m just color blind! Some people (like my husband) are “lumpers” and call anything blue-green, blue, or green, but don’t recognize subtleties of colors. Thus, I guess to make everyone happy, or to compromise, the blue-green description may fit them best.

Image 1. Blue-green inclusions seen in neutrophils. Photos courtesy of Alana D. Swanson. UMMC

These blue-green inclusions were originally reported in patients with hepatic injury and failure. Laboratory results include elevations in AST, ALT and LDH. More recently, there have been cases with no evidence of hepatic injury. Researchers are now finding that these crystals can occur in patients with tissue injury other than liver, and in patients with multiorgan failure. In patients with no liver injury, what is a common factor is that LDH is elevated, indicating tissue injury. Additionally, along with these crystals, lactic acid levels can be used as a predictor of survival. Higher levels of lactic acidosis at the time crystals are noted is a negative predictor of survival.2

In trying to determine the clinical significance of these crystals, they have been subject to a number of different stains to determine their content. The association with hepatic failure led researchers to hypothesize that the crystals were a bile product in circulation. Since then, the crystals have been found to be negative in bile stains. When stained with other stains, Oil Red O showed positive in neutrophils, indicating high lipid content. The inclusions did not stain positive with iron stain or myeloperoxidase. Acid fast stains showed the inclusions to be acid fast positive.3 These crystals also show an interesting similarity to sea-blue histiocytes, which further associates them with tissue injury. After analysis, it is now thought that these crystals contain lipofuscin-like deposits representing lysosomal degradation products, and may be present in multiple types of tissue injury.2

With the current pandemic, I have seen reports of these crystals in COVID-19 patients. I have heard of fellow technologists seeing these, and a recent paper described the first reported cases in patients with COVID-19. These recent incidences may lead to new information about exactly what clinical significance they hold. About one third of COVID-19 patients have elevated ALT and AST, though it is not yet clear whether the liver dysfunction is directly caused by the virus, due to sepsis, or other complications of patient comorbidities. Many COVID-19 patients have mild disease, yet some develop severe pneumonia, respiratory complications, and multiorgan failure. Mortality is increased in these severely affected patients. To better understand and manage treatment for COVID-19, physicians seek to identify biological indicators associated with adverse outcomes.1

In a New York City study, Cantu and colleagues reported on six COVID-19 patients who presented with blue-green crystals in neutrophils and/or monocytes. All six patients had an initial lymphocytopenia, and significantly elevated AST, ALT, LDH and lactic acid at the time the crystals were noted. All of the patients had comorbidities, yet only two of the six presented with acute liver disease. Interestingly, in the six cases reported on in the study, only one had blue-green inclusions reported from the original manual differential. The others were found retrospectively when correlating the cases with patients known to have elevated ALT and AST. All patients died within 20 days of initial diagnosis.1

The consensus of several papers in the last few years is that these crystals are being underreported. As seen in the above study, the crystals were originally seen in just one of the six patients. A look back revealed the other cases. With an increase in COVID-19 cases in our facilities, these blue-green crystal inclusions may be a novelty that is wearing off. We may see a rise in their presence, and need to be able to recognize and report them. This information is important to report if clinicians are to use these crystal inclusions along with acute transaminase and lactic acid elevations to predict poor patient outcomes.

Clinicians, hematologists, and laboratory technologists should be educated and have a high level of awareness of these inclusions. The University of Rochester conducted a study a few years ago that noted that, because these crystals are rare, techs may not be on the lookout for them. Once techs see them, they seem to be on the alert and more are reported. The hospital instituted an “increased awareness” campaign, which resulted in an increase in detection. This revealed cases that were not related to liver injury, including patients with metastatic cancer and sepsis. However, an important correlating factor was that all of the patients had mild to severe elevations in liver enzymes. With more awareness, we are starting to see them in patients without hepatic injury, but with other inflammation and tissue injury.4

Image 2. Blue- green crystal inclusions seen in a patient diagnosed with sepsis and multiorgan failure. Photo courtesy of Karen Cable, YRMC.

Let’s raise our level of awareness of these maybe-not-so-rare crystal inclusions. And, please be sure to call them by their preferred name, blue-green neutrophil inclusions! Let’s not talk about death crystals or crystals of death.

Many thanks to my colleague Alana D. Swanson, MLS(ASCP)CM , University of Maryland Medical Center and Karen Cable, Hematology Section Lead, Yavapai Regional Medical Center, Arizona, for the photos used in this blog. 

References

  1. Cantu, M, Towne, W, Emmons, F et al. Clinical Significance of blue-green neutrophil and monocyte cytoplasmic inclusions in SARS-CoV-2 positive critically ill patients. Br J Haematol. May 26, 2020.
  2. Hodgkins, SR, Jones, J. A Case of Blue-Green neutrophil inclusions. ASCLS Today. 2019;32:431.
  3. Hodgson, T.O., Ruskova, A., Shugg, C.J., McCallum, V.J. and Morison, I.M. Green neutrophil and monocyte inclusions – time to acknowledge and report. Br J Haematol, 2015;170: 229-235.
  4. Patel,N, Hoffman,CM, Goldman,BJ et al. Green Inclusions in Neutrophils and Monocytes are an Indicator of Acute Liver Injury and High Mortality. Acta Haematol. 2017;138:85-90

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.

A Resident’s Perspective of SARS-CoV-2 Testing Using the Double Diamond Model of Design Process

During the 2019-2020 residency interview season, I “courted” – no better way to describe those interactions over lunch–several potential co-residents, who were eager to know why I came to University of Chicago (NorthShore) for my residency. My answers and those of my fellow residents would help the candidates determine how high they should rank our program, so I enthusiastically recalled things I liked when I interviewed at NorthShore about a year earlier. I had also recently completed my first microbiology rotation in residency and I had enjoyed seeing all of those factors work synergistically to improve patient health outcomes through improved testing. So passionately, I shared how I fell in love with the physical structure of the department which has almost all the labs and offices one floor, the automation of the labs-especially the core and microbiology labs, the capability and regular expansion of its molecular laboratory, the people and of course, “the feel” about NorthShore.

With these experiences, I looked forward to my second microbiology in March 2020, where I would learn more about the diagnostics of various microorganisms–E. coli: Gram negative short stubby/broad shouldered rods vs. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Gram negative long slender rods, etc. (Un)fortunately, March came, but the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) had other plans for my learning. Cases of Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19), caused SARS-CoV-2[1] were increasing rapidly in the US, so laboratories, including ours had rapidly implement testing. Rather than have morning rounds and other educational activities where the differential diagnoses of several clinically relevant microorganisms were discussed, we had virtual and in-person meetings discussing what to do about one virus. These continued and by the middle of March, we had become the only non-government lab in Illinois and second in the Midwest that had developed a clinical PCR test for SARS-CoV-2. I was excited to be part of that success, but more so, about learning how we achieved that as a team.

Our approach could be summarized using the Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Double diamond or 4D model of design process which consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Plan Do Study Act (PDSA) is an iterative model of quality improvement embedded in the 4D design process.
  1. In the discover phase, a phase of divergent thought [2] and exploration, we identified from events in China and other parts of the world as well as some other states in the US that the community we care for could potentially be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
  2. The next phase- define- is a convergent phase where the problem to be solved, as well as the resources available and resources needed to solve it are delineated [2]. As we transitioned from the discovery to define phases-and recalling the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak about 10 years ago- it became evident that an epidemic of a relatively fatal respiratory virus which we knew very little about was heading our way. As clinical laboratory professionals, our objective was to help identify members of the community who had been infected through testing so appropriate steps could be taken to sequester and care for them. Among our available resources was our molecular laboratory, but like most laboratories outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC we lacked the reagents, primers and authorization to run the test.
  3. Develop is the next phase in the process and this is a divergent phase where the team explores and refines potential solution to the issues and selects one[2]. This is often followed by the convergent deliver phase where one of the solutions from the develop phase is implemented. Feedbacks which are used for projects are also received during this phase[2]. But, the outbreak continued to evolve rapidly [3] with briskly increasing positivity rates[4] and some of the solutions we considered would require some time to be implemented and/or have long turnaround times. For instance, since we had a roust molecular laboratory, one option was to develop our assays and test in-house, while another was to send the samples to outside labs where they could be run. Running the tests in-house would have a shorter turnaround time and would be more efficient, which is extremely important considering the severity of COVID-19.
  4. Deliver is the last phase of the process.  We decided to develop a SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test at our institution, but we also knew we needed to put logistics and protocols in-place to deliver our solution.  For example, COVID-19 presents with flu-like symptoms but flu is common between December and March[5-7] so it would be impractical to expect to test all patients with flu-like symptoms – at least with the limited resources we had. In any case, it was clear that we would not have an ideal amount of time or information to develop and implement the perfect solution. As such, the revolving and fluid nature of the develop and deliver phases of our response is best depicted using the Plan Do Study Act (PDSA), an iterative model of quality improvement. As shown in Fig. 1, we developed and validated our assay, as well as developed an initial protocol for screening patients and logistics for patient-centered delivery in the “Do” step. Importantly, we also reviewed the effectiveness of these operations, and made necessary changes corresponding in the “Study” and “Act” steps respectively.

The prompt decision to implement in-house COVID-19 testing at NorthShore has proven to be the right one. To date we have tested 75,000 specimens and nearly 20,000 tests have been positive. Success which was possible because of the factors which made me come to NorthShore, amongst others. The LEAN, bright and capacious design of the department limits the innate barriers of hierarchical organizational structure; encouraging seamless horizontal and vertical intradepartmental consultation and collaboration as COVID-19 led us into uncharted territory. Also, having a molecular lab that regularly expands its capability made the decision to test in-house relatively easy. In addition, having an automated microbiology lab made it easier for staff to be flexible and deal with the various demands of testing for a new bug in a pandemic. And of course, the people at NorthShore who are ready to volunteer, take up new roles or change shifts to accommodate the demands of a rapidly evolving pandemic, stay in constant communications and provide feedback, and who make everything else at NorthShore work!

References

  1. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200130-sitrep-10-ncov.pdf?sfvrsn=d0b2e480_2
  2. Council, Design. “Eleven lessons: Managing design in eleven global companies-desk research report.” Design Council (2007).
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/summary.html
  4. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200324-sitrep-64-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=723b221e_2
  5. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses#:~:text=symptoms
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
  8. Christoff, Patricia. “Running PDSA cycles.” Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care 48.8 (2018): 198-201.

Adesola Akinyemi, M.D., MPH, is a first year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at University of Chicago (NorthShore). He is interested in most areas of pathology including surgical pathology, cytopathology and neuropathology -and is enjoying it all. He is also passionate about health outcomes improvement through systems thinking and design, and other aspects of healthcare management. Twitter: @AkinyemiDesola

-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania. 

Unwritten Safety Rules Every Lab Professional Should Know

Many years ago a woman purchased a cup of coffee in a restaurant drive-through. Not having a cup holder available in her car, she placed the cup between her legs to hold the coffee while she reached for money to pay for it. She burned her legs, sued the restaurant, and actually won her court case. Now such restaurants are required to warn customers with signs stating the obvious; “coffee served hot.” Before this regulation came to be, however, many people were aware of the possible danger of placing a hot cup near their skin. Does having a posted sign make customers safer? What about the lab environment? There isn’t an explicit safety regulation written for every action that could create an unsafe situation. So what are a few of the hidden and maybe no-so-obvious things might your staff need to know in order to keep safe?

You can’t chew gum in the laboratory. It’s true, but sadly, it’s not written down anywhere as a regulation. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen standard says that “eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or lip balm, and handling contact lenses are prohibited (in the lab).” It says nothing abut gum, throat lozenges, hard candy, or even chewing tobacco. The unwritten rule is that OSHA is trying to prevent hand-to-face contact while working in an area where infections can be acquired easily this way. There are multiple routes of entry via mucous membranes- a major source of pathogen exposure- your mouth, nose, and eyes. Laboratorians should always keep their hands away from their face when working in the department. These activities are just another opportunity for hand- to-mouth contact. While you might be able to show the safety officer you are putting these things in your mouth outside of the lab, you would not be able to prove that to an inspector, and they will rightly cite you for it. If you need help enforcing this, be on the lookout- by the end of the year there will most likely be a regulatory body that addresses gum chewing directly.

How long should staff wear PPE? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have asked about the effectiveness of various PPE and have looked for written guidance discussing how long it should be worn. In general, studies show that gloves lose barrier effectiveness in about two hours. Wear them that long if they are not visibly soiled while in use in the lab. Lab coats- disposable or reusable- can be worn for one week in the general lab setting unless something is spilled on them. Once a new coat is worn, the outside is considered contaminated, but that does not mean it cannot be re-used. It is wasteful to change coats every day unless there is a reason to do that (i.e. in a specialty lab where cross-contamination will be an issue). Face shields worn by staff can be reused as well, and they can be cleaned with alcohol-based products for disinfection. Rarely should a wearable face shield or goggles be used only once before disposal.

Mesh shoes are not allowed to be worn by lab personnel. Again, other than in CLSI guidelines, it will be difficult to find that written clearly in lab safety regulations. Laboratory footwear should “be comfortable and cover the entire foot, including the instep and the heel. Because canvas shoes will absorb chemicals or infectious fluids, they are not recommended. Leather or a synthetic, fluid-impermeable material is suggested. OSHA’s PPE standard does insist that employers take measures to protect the feet of employees. In the lab and specimen collection setting, that means footwear needs to protect from biohazard materials, chemicals, and even sharps. Mesh or canvas shoes do not fit the bill, and neither do clog-style shoes (even if they have a heel strap). If you need to, set your lab’s footwear policy through the dress code or maybe the Chemical Hygiene Plan. If staff tells you they can’t find this type of footwear, tell them to look harder. All across this country, hundreds of laboratory employees are wearing the appropriate shoes, and they are available at several different stores.

Often, because these safety rules are “unwritten,” staff will challenge you on them. It can be difficult to try to enforce these important safety measures if you can’t properly educate the staff about why they exist. Be sure to know your regulatory resources, and don’t be afraid to dig deeply into the references to find the answers you seek. Lab leaders can write their own policy, and it can go above and beyond what the regulations state if needed. The safety standard may not be clear and direct, but it these are still important measures to take. Just like that lady may have needed a sign to prevent her from putting hot coffee in her lap, your staff needs clear safety guidance to keep them safe from a lab-acquired injury or exposure. Provide the tools they need to remain happy and healthy members of your lab team.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

The Social Medium is the Message

Hello again everyone and welcome back to Lablogatory!

If you read my post last time, I talked about preserving integrity and delivery of our professional duty as laboratorians in the face of both overwhelming pandemic demands as well as working to  advocate for our field as more people realize each day what goes into every single lab result around the world. A run on sentence and a heavy discussion—and it was just in time to celebrate Lab Week 2020!

This time let’s expand on the second topic a bit. Advocacy in our profession and spotlighting our critical roles as pathologists and medical laboratory scientists. As much as you or I might agree that this is proof positive, just from looking at the regular old news media this year, it’s not so easy. But something that’s been quietly creeping higher and higher on the Lab-Med radar this past year or so is now growing faster than it ever has before: Social Media.

The medium you disseminate information on also translates a message about the author/speaker. For me, I was not only staying the course about data-driven testing science regarding COVID, but I took every ad-lib and opportunity to praise the medical laboratory profession. I praised laboratorians for their hard work, and took a minute to say clearly and plainly, that they are indisputably healthcare heroes in this season of notability. In doing so, I found myself addressing a more pressing pandemic: The Path and MLS pipeline problem. We have a serious issue with finding new medical laboratory scientists and medical students to go into our field. The main cause and culprit? Our essential clinical invisibility. As we are much less patient facing than our other colleagues, it’s difficult to expose younger students considering various careers in healthcare to our specialty. Cue Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even TikTok.

Image 1. Throwback to the 2019 ASCP Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ. Dr. Kamran Mirza (left), myself, and Dr. Adam Booth (right) are all part of the growing community of pathologists/trainees plugged into the social network to advocate, collaborate, and spotlight our profession. Follow them both on twitter at: @KMirza and @ALBoothMD, they are champions of using social media as an educational connection.

I’ve talked about this before. And, of course, I’m biased: I’m on the official ASCP Social Media Communications Committee and was highly active in previous iterations including the #SoMeTeam as well as ASCP Social Media Ambassadors programs. Anyone who reads my pieces here knows I’m not social media shy—heck, I weaponized my online presence for residency interview season, networking around the clock to get my name and my work out there for programs to notice. Spoilers: it worked really, really well.

(If you’re one of those senior medical students who is preparing to practice the age-old tradition of wiping the internet clean of your presence, consider a 180 turnaround from that plan—at least if you’re applying to pathology…)

So what worked so well for me? Well, first some background. You know I’m on two ASCP committees, CCPD and Social Media. I’ve already told you I’ve been working the social media angles for a while now, at ASCP meetings, sharing content, etc. And I had a super busy, and super rewarding, residency interview season. With rotations and interviews at some amazing places, I was able to both learn a lot about what it is I really want to do and meet folks to talk about it with. All that being said, sometimes things just fall into place. Specifically, a global pandemic happened. …too soon?

I’m not going to rehash the early days of the pandemic for you, or talk about how I became involved on the ground floor of a lot of outreach and education efforts: that was sooo last month, I did that already (read it all here). But what I will talk about is the butterfly effect that each media engagement set into place for me.

Image 2. When everyone’s talking, the loudest microphone gets the audience. When no one’s making sense, the best content wins. Many of the talks and interviews since the very first ones with my friend and colleague Dr. Ajufo set up a cascade of content to answer some serious concerns during these strange times.

In effect, the order of events for me these last few months looked like this:

  • Writing pieces for Lablogatory¸ some based in scientific analysis of testing, some to address public health concerns and education.
  • Making small viral online tid-bits aimed at educating lay people about overall health, avoiding exposure, and what testing means.
  • Social media connection to join the #PathCast lecture series, of which my video has garnered approximately 20,000 individual views and was seen in almost 50 countries.
  • Invitations from CDC-funded training agencies to explain testing considerations, virology details in translational science, and discuss how those most vulnerable to social determinants of health are most inequitably affected by pandemic conditions.
  • Informal features where I was invited to discuss those intersectional tenets of medicine, public health, and socioeconomics with lay persons in a virtual group setting.
  • An interview with Lifehacker magazine’s Vitals section, to answer reddit-style ask-me-anything questions regarding COVID testing online live with open to the public availability.
  • Inclusion in Lifehacker magazine’s online podcast, where I was featured alongside other experts to discuss the effect of the pandemic on many aspects of life from health to finances.
  • An interview with The Endless Files Podcast¸ where I was invited as a content expert to discuss the connections between laboratory data, public health, public policy, and discuss the political climate surrounding coronavirus concerns all over the sociopolitical spectrum.
  • An interview with People of Pathology Podcast which gave me the chance to talk about my individual career path and transition from education about testing to advocacy and representation for our amazing profession.
  • The nomination and selection by my medical school faculty and peers to deliver the student charge at my formal, virtual, medical graduation.
  • …more are on the way!

Why am I listing these things? Is it my misplaced Greek hubris? Maybe. But before I fly too close to the sun, I’m trying to prove a point. That what started out as creating content on social media for health and wellness during a pandemic essentially became a snowball by summer. I was addressing pressingly relevant information during the obvious opportunity to step up and educate. But something else was happening; something I didn’t realize until recently. And whatever it was, I wasn’t getting there alone.

**All of this was made possible by social media recommendations and connections from friends and colleagues!**

PathCast? I was recommended by a pathologist friend on ASCP’s CCPD committee with me. The CDC-funded training? A former grad student friend of mine when I studied at Rush. Lifehacker? Made possible in a public call for content by our favorite medical lab scientist and Lablogatory editor, Kelly Swails. The Endless Files? Reached out to an old political science professor and friend at Loyola. People of Pathology? Social media connections with friends and CLS colleagues in Canada—you want to make things happen? Don’t go at it alone!

Don’t know how to get started in all this social media frenzy? Don’t fret. Basically, here’s a four-step process: make accounts on one or all of your favorite platforms, follow everyone you want to learn more from, share other’s content or your own frequently, and (most importantly) promote others before yourself! There are countless webinars and talks on how to use social media to leverage advocacy and education, just look at some of the greatest pathology teachers on Twitter: @KMirza, @CArnold_GI, @MArnold_PedPath, @RodneyRhode, @HermelinMD, @KreuterMD, @JMGardnerMD, and many, many more. But there’s more than just twitter! Many super talented folks team up to produce lectures, webinars, and even podcasts (check out the brand-spankin’-new PathPod here!)

Just dive in!

Image 3. Virtual graduation, social media outreach. 2-for-1 sale. In my on-screen graduation quote during the conferment of degrees, part of it read “don’t let me be the last pathologist you were friends with…” and during my student address, I implored my classmates and anyone else watching to consider creative, new ways to solve clinical problems. Maybe with new tools, new skills, and a new understanding of interdisciplinary collaboration. I also reminded people that our digital presence can indicate our professional message, as champions of truth in science.

In conclusion, social media is the new (old) heavy hitter in the medical world. Younger med students are getting access to more specialty information than they ever have before, informing and guiding their career choices. Specialists of all kinds share and reshare excellent diamonds of content that galvanize medical discourse everywhere from Twitter to TikTok. What does this do? It closes the gap between professionals across disciplines, shines new spotlights on fields that traditionally got stamped with basement autopsy stereotypes, and creates digestible and understandable bridges for lay people to access our jargon-filled discourse. It only goes up from here.

Post-script: if you haven’t noticed the racially charged, horrible situations adding to the tumultuousness of 2020, there’s another lesson in this. Social media again proves a most-valuable and all-powerful tool to mobilize, demonstrate, collaborate, and unify thoughts, ideas, and causes. I doubt we will ever be free of tragic moments in history, but when we come together as one collective we can use our various platforms to honor heroes, shame wrong doers, celebrate positive change, and highlight systemic failings that might hold us back from true progress, justice, and peace. That includes the medical world, as all things cross at the intersections of human life and human rights.

Thank you for reading! Stay safe, stay well, and continue to practice safe, compassion-informed social distancing. The pandemic isn’t over, and neither is our work.

Until next time!


-Constantine E. Kanakis MD, MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM is a new first year resident physician in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Department at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago with interests in hematopathology, transfusion medicine, bioethics, public health, and graphic medicine. His posts focus on the broader issues important to the practice of clinical laboratory medicine and their applications to global/public health, outreach/education, and advancing medical science. He is actively involved in public health and education, advocating for visibility and advancement of pathology and lab medicine. Watch his TEDx talk entitled “Unrecognizable Medicine” and follow him on Twitter @CEKanakisMD.

COVID-19 Testing Explained

By this point I believe we are all tired of reading and talking about COVID. However based on reading comments on social media, it’s quite clear that there are a lot of misconceptions about COVID testing. For starters COVID-19 is the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So all of the tests we are using to assist in the diagnosis of COVID-19 are really looking for signs that the person was infected with SARS-CoV-2. There are also 3 main categories of tests for SARS-CoV-2 based on the target of the assay: RNA, antigen, and antibody.

Diagnosis of COVID-19 should be based on clinical symptoms, risk of exposure, test results and timeline. The diagnostic tests based on detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA are the most commonly used and reliable for diagnosis of COVID-19.1 All of these assays are based on amplifying the viral RNA to detect the presence of the RNA. Most assays use some form of PCR to amplify the virus, however because the virus is RNA-based it has to be converted to cDNA with reverse transcriptase PCR before amplification and detection. TMA or transcription-mediated amplification is another chemistry that can be used to amplify the RNA to a detectable level. Both PCR and TMA based assays are very sensitive at detecting the virus especially within the first week after symptoms develop.1,2 Due to the RNA-based nature of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, the mutation rate is anticipated to be high. Most of the RNA-based assays have adopted a strategy to target 2 different areas of the viral genome to prevent missing the presence of the virus due to a mutation in the primer binding site.

A SARS-CoV-2 antigen test received EUA in early May. The test is designed with immunofluorescence-based lateral flow. This type of test is designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 proteins present on the outside of the virus. In general, this class of test is cheaper and faster than RNA-based testing however it is less sensitive (80% clinical sensitivity).3 The clinical specificity of antigen assays is shown to be 100%,3 therefore a positive result is reliable. These tests can be used for screening; however patients with negative results may still need to proceed to testing by an RNA-based method. Antigen based tests is typically more sensitive during the same timeframe when PCR testing is more sensitive, ie earlier in the course of disease.

SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests are the last class of tests. Seroconversion appears to occur within 7-14 days of symptom onset2 or 15-20 days post exposure to the virus.4 There are many different tests to choose from to determine if the patient has previously been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The assays range from lateral flow cassettes to high throughput chemiluminescent based assays. Some of the SARS-CoV-2 antibody assays detect IgG, IgM, IgA or some combination of the 3 including total antibody without differentiating between the three. The latest studies have shown that some patients develop IgM first, some with IgG, and others had both IgG and IgM develop at the same time.5 Therefore differentiating IgG from IgM is not providing a timeline for acute infection as we have seen in response to other viruses. Although sensitivity and specificity vary widely between manufacturers total antibody detection appears to be more sensitive than IgG or IgM detection alone.4 The FDA recently pulled numerous assays off of the market due to poor performance.

It is important to note that even with the most sensitive and specific antibody test, these tests cannot determine if a patient has protective immunity. Unfortunately we don’t know enough about immunity with regards to COVID yet. Early studies are promising, showing that some level of antibody will likely provide protection from future exposure. We don’t know if there is a threshold of antibody that needs to be present before a patient is immune, will the immunity only decrease the severity and not prevent reinfection, and how long the antibodies are maintained after exposure. These will be important questions to answer before the clinical utility of antibody testing can be realized. Right now the test is useful to determine is a patient was previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and is helpful to address epidemiological questions with regards to prevalence of COVID-19 in the community. The antibody test should not be used for diagnosis of current infection due to the delay to seroconvert after exposure.

References

  1. Sethuraman, N., Jeremiah, S. S., & Ryo, A. (2020). Interpreting Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.8259
  2. Wolfel, R., Corman, V. M., Guggemos, W., Seilmaier, M., Zange, S., Muller, M. A., . . . Wendtner, C. (2020). Virological assessment of hospitalized patients with COVID-2019. Nature, 581(7809), 465-469. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2196-x
  3. Quidel Sofia®2 SARS Antigen FIA. https://www.quidel.com/sites/default/files/product/documents/EF1438900EN00_0.pdf 5/29/2020.
  4. Lou, B., Li, T. D., Zheng, S. F., Su, Y. Y., Li, Z. Y., Liu, W., . . . Chen, Y. (2020). Serology characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 infection since exposure and post symptom onset. Eur Respir J. doi:10.1183/13993003.00763-2020
  5. Long, Q. X., Liu, B. Z., Deng, H. J., Wu, G. C., Deng, K., Chen, Y. K., . . . Huang, A. L. (2020). Antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in patients with COVID-19. Nat Med. doi:10.1038/s41591-020-0897-1

-Tabetha Sundin, PhD, HCLD (ABB), MB (ASCP)CM,  has over 10 years of laboratory experience in clinical molecular diagnostics including oncology, genetics, and infectious diseases. She is the Scientific Director of Molecular Diagnostics and Serology at Sentara Healthcare. Dr. Sundin holds appointments as Adjunct Associate Professor at Old Dominion University and Assistant Professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School and is involved with numerous efforts to support the molecular diagnostics field. 

Clinical Laboratory Scientists are Imperative to Patient Education

Medical Laboratory Professionals work behind the screens of the medical industry. The contributions produced by this diligent, dynamic, accuracy-driven teams, provide approximately 70% of diagnostic information. This information is imperative for proper diagnosis and treatment. Due to the nature of laboratory work, laboratory personnels are not visible at the forefront of delivering patient care. Therefore, much of society is unaware of the efforts conducted within other parts of the medical industry.

In November of 2018, I had an experience with an elderly couple that will always remain at the forefront of my mind. I was an evening shift Blood Bank Technical Supervisor at a Trauma Level I hospital housing with more than 1000 beds. The Blood Bank served in/out transfusion-dependent patients, as well as being a transplant institution conducting cardiac, liver, and lung transplants. To say we were busy is an understatement.

We had an outpatient order for an older woman who was accompanied by her husband. Her husband, being her advocate, was known to express his concern regarding an issue concerning his wife. The patient’s two units of blood were delayed and the patient’s husband proceeded to call the blood bank to inquire about the delay. The medical laboratory assistant informing him the order was being worked on was not enough, so he proceeded to hound the nurse. The nurse then proceeded to ask to speak to the supervisor.

Before speaking to the nurse, I got the status of the order and asked the technologist approximately how much longer the wait would be. She explained intital testing had revealed an antibody, and so she followed protocol and informed the nurse there would be a delay in blood products.Completing the workup and finding appropriate blood for the patient is what caused the delay. She was at the last portion of crossmatching the blood, and after my review of the workup, it should be 15 minutes.

I informed the nurse it would be 15 minutes, and she pleaded with me to explain the delay to the patient and her husband. After receiving confirmation from my manager to proceed, I hand-delivered the blood to the outpatient room.

“Perception is reality,” so it is imperative to be aware of all verbal and nonverbal communication when interacting with patients. Therefore, accompanied by the nurse, I entered the room and introduced myself and my position. I explained in layman’s term an ABO Type, antibody screen, and finding suitable blood when an antibody has developed. When I was through, they had an exceptional understanding of concept and turnaround time. The patient and husband were appreciative of my explanation and grateful for my staff. The patient’s husband then asked me about my education and what it entailed for me to hold my position. He was highly impressed and never knew all the science and math courses required to become a medical laboratory scientist. He said it was an opportunity he was going to pass along to his granddaughter, who was interested in science.

The following day, the patient’s husband called and apologized to the staff member he initially spoke with and praised the work we do for all patients. This experience highlighted the importance of training laboratory management when interacting with patients. It is more common for the pathologist or medical director to reach out to patients but there are times, especially on the off-shifts, where a laboratory supervisor or manager may be the best option available.

Being an advocate for the medical laboratory science profession is a means of educating the society of a vital career which impacts all lives. Medical laboratory lrofessionals may be behind the scenes, but to administer treatment, essential laboratory results are required; without the laboratory – you’re guessing.

-Tiffany Channer, MPH, MLS(ASCP)CM honed her skill and knowledge of Blood Banking at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY, where she completed her 9 year tenure at Memorial Sloan as Blood Bank Educational Lead Medical Technologist III/ Safety Officer. She’s currently working as a Quality Assurance Specialist / Educational Supervisor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Tiffany was a Top Five 40 under Forty Honoree in 2015 for her dedication and advocacy to education and laboratory medicine.

Overview of Laboratory Tests for Cytomegalovirus

Introduction

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is considered the most important pathogen in transplant recipient patients as it can cause significant morbidity and mortality. Anti-CMV treatments have proven to be effective but are not without adverse side effects. Thus, there is a strong need for sensitive and reliable tests to diagnose and monitor active CMV infection. Several testing methodologies are available in today’s clinical laboratories to evaluate a patient’s CMV status: viral culture, serology, histopathology, pp65 antigenemia, and quantitative PCR. In this post, we will review the advantages and limitations of these tests.

Viral culture

Viral culture is performed most commonly by the shell vial assay (also known as rapid culture), in which a cell line (usually human fibroblast cells) is inoculated with patient sample by centrifugation. The virus is then detected by either direct or indirect fluorescent monoclonal antibody, providing results within 1-3 days. The centrifugation step greatly improves turnaround time when compared to traditional tube cell culture technique, which may take 2-3 weeks before a result can be reported as negative.

Culturing CMV has been largely replaced by newer methodologies like quantitative PCR and CMV antigenemia. This is due to relatively weaker sensitivity for diagnosing CMV infection compared to newer tests, as well as slower turnaround time. Viral cultures of urine, oral secretions, and stool are not recommended due to poor specificity; however, for diagnosis of congenital CMV, viral culture of urine or saliva samples is an acceptable alternative if PCR is not available.

Serology

CMV serostatus is an important metric to evaluate prior to patients receiving a hematopoietic or solid organ transplant. Serologic testing is done primarily via enzyme immunoassays and indirect immunofluorescence assays. These tests check for presence of anti-CMV immunoglobulin (Ig)M and IgG to provide evidence of recent or past infection. Outside of establishing serostatus (primarily in organ donors and recipients), serologic testing for CMV is not recommended in diagnosing or monitoring active CMV infection.

CMV IgM antibodies can be detected within the first two weeks of symptom development and can be present for another 4-6 months. IgG antibodies can be detected 2-3 weeks after symptoms develop, and remain present lifelong. These antibody measurements are particularly useful in determining risk of CMV acquisition in seronegative patients (negative for IgM and IgG) at time of transplantation. IgG titers can also be measured every 2-4 weeks to assess for CMV reactivation in seropositive patients. Since CMV IgG persistently remains in circulation, testing for it has a higher specificity compared to IgM, and thus is the preferred immunoglobulin to test for in establishing serostatus. Serologic tests can be falsely positive if patients have recently received IVIG or blood products, so testing on pretransfusion samples are preferred if possible.

Histopathology

Under the microscope, cells infected with CMV can express certain viral cytopathic effects. These infected cells classically show cytoplasmic and nuclear inclusions (owl eye nuclei) with cytoplasmic and nuclear enlargement. Additionally, immunohistochemistry (IHC) can stain antibodies specifically for CMV proteins to highlight infected cells, making histologic examination quicker and improving diagnostic sensitivity.

Histopathology can be useful in identifying tissue-invasive disease, such as CMV colitis or pneumonitis. Cases in which PCR testing is negative does not necessarily exclude tissue-invasive disease; thus, the diagnosis of tissue-invasive disease relies on histologic examination (with or without IHC) or possibly viral culture. On the other hand, a negative histologic result does not exclude tissue-invasive disease, possibly due to inadequate sampling, and shows the potential for weak diagnostic sensitivity.

pp65 antigenemia

CMV antigenemia testing uses indirect immunofluorescence to identify pp65 antigen, a CMV-specific matrix protein, in peripheral blood polymorphonuclear leukocytes. Whole blood specimens are lysed and then the leukocytes are cytocentrifuged onto a glass slide. Monoclonal antibodies to pp65 are applied, followed by a secondary FITC-labeled antibody. The slide is then read using a fluorescence microscope for homogenous yellow-green polylobate nuclear staining, indicating presence of CMV antigen-positive leukocytes. Studies have suggested that a higher number of positive cells correlates with an increased risk of developing active disease. The sensitivity of antigenemia testing is higher than that of viral culture and offers a turnaround time within several hours.

This test has been utilized since the 1980s, but has seen less use recently due to the increasing popularity of quantitative PCR. Antigenemia testing is labor intensive, and requires experienced and trained personnel to interpret the results (which can be somewhat subjective). This test also must be performed on whole blood specimens within 6-8 hours of collection due to decreasing sensitivity over time, which limits transportability of specimens. Additionally, It is not recommended to be run on patients with absolute neutrophil counts below 1000/mm3, due to decreased sensitivity. Despite these limitations, CMV antigenemia testing is still considered a viable choice for diagnosing and monitoring CMV infection, especially when viral load testing is not available.

Quantitative PCR

Quantitative real-team polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the most commonly used method to monitor patients at risk for CMV disease and response to therapy, as well as for diagnosing active CMV infection. The advantages of using a quantitative PCR assay include increased sensitivity over antigenemia testing, quick turnaround time, flexibility of using whole blood or plasma specimens for up to 3-4 days at room temperature, and the availability of an international reference standard published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Several assays from Roche, Abbott, and Qiagen are available and FDA-approved. The targets of these assays vary, with some targeting polymerase and other targeting CMV major immediate early gene. These assays are all calibrated with the WHO international standard, which was developed in 2010 to help standardize viral load values among different labs when results are reported in international units/mL. The goal of this international standard is to decrease the interlaboratory variability of viral load, and determine the appropriate cut-offs for determining clinical CMV disease. There is still improvement to be made in this area, as variability still exists between labs.

Conclusion

There are several tests to determine the CMV status of patients. Some of these tests are suited for particular goals, such as serology for determining serostatus prior to organ transplantation, or histology and IHC to diagnose tissue-specific CMV disease. For diagnosis and monitoring of general CMV disease, the test of choice in most laboratories is quantitative PCR, which offers automated, quick and sensitive results. Antigenemia, while dated and labor intensive, is still an acceptable alternative when PCR is neither available nor cost-effective for smaller labs. Both of these testing methods are preferred over viral culture, which has poorer diagnostic sensitivity and relatively longer turnaround time.

Despite the numerous advantages quantitative PCR has, there is still variability in viral load counts among laboratories. This is due to varying DNA extraction techniques, gene targets used by PCR, and specimen types used. There is still a lot of work to be done in standardizing testing in regards to not just CMV, but also other viral pathogens like Epstein-Barr virus, BK virus, adenovirus and HHV6. Updated standards and increased use of standardized assays will hopefully decrease this variability between labs to improve testing results and in turn, improve patient care.

References

  1. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-diagnostic-tests-for-cytomegalovirus-infection#H104411749
  2. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/congenital-cytomegalovirus-infection-clinical-features-and-diagnosis?topicRef=8305&source=related_link#H9542666
  3. Kotton CN, Kumar D, Caliendo AM, et al. Updated international consensus guidelines on the management of cytomegalovirus in solid-organ transplantation. Transplantation. 2013;96(4):333-60.
  4. Hayden RT, Sun Y, Tang L, et al. Progress in Quantitative Viral Load Testing: Variability and Impact of the WHO Quantitative International Standards. J Clin Microbiol. 2017;55(2):423-430.
  5. Kotton CN, Kumar D, Caliendo AM, et al. The Third International Consensus Guidelines on the Management of Cytomegalovirus in Solid-organ Transplantation. Transplantation. 2018;102(6):900-931.

-David Joseph, MD is a 2nd year anatomic and clinical pathology resident at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX. He is planning on pursuing a fellowship in forensic pathology after completing residency. His interests outside of work include photography, playing bass guitar and video games, making (and eating) homemade ice cream, and biking.

Laboratory Safety and COVID-19: References You Need to Know

Three months ago, life in the laboratories in these United States carried on as usual, and no one could probably have predicted where we stand today. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way laboratorians work everywhere. Some staff have had hours cut because of decreased workloads, other labs worked around the clock to bring new testing on board, and others dealt with staffing shortages due to illness. It has been a wild ride, and through it all, a great many safety issues have arisen. Common lab practices are now viewed through a new lens- is it acceptable to bring hematology slides for review into a clean pathologist’s office? Can we wear surgical masks worn in the lab into the break room? There are many good questions, but some of the answers can be found using references offered from reliable sources. Not everything you read online can be believed, but here are some references that may be necessary and that provide important information.

The pandemic has created a world-wide shortage of PPE, and some have wondered what can be done as resources diminish. The CDC has some good information about calculating how long PPE can be used and how long it can last. There are good guidelines about re-use and extended use of PPE.

PPE Burn Rate Calculator:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/burn-calculator.html

Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html

There are specific references regarding respirators and how they should be used.

Respiratory Protection During Outbreaks: Respirators versus Surgical Masks

Understanding the Use of Imported Non-NIOSH-Approved Respirators

Proper N95 Respirator Use for Respiratory Protection Preparedness

Some laboratory disinfectants have become more difficult to purchase. The gold standard for disinfection remains a 10% bleach solution, but there are many other options that can be used as well.

Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (EPA List N):

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2

EPA’s Registered Antimicrobial Products Effective Against Human HIV-1 and Hepatitis B Virus:

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-d-epas-registered-antimicrobial-products-effective-against-human-hiv-1

The CDC also offers laboratories a set of COVID-19 guidelines for performing testing, biosafety issues, waste management, and protection against aerosols. These guidelines are thorough, and they can be very helpful should safety challenges arise.

Interim Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines for Handling and Processing Specimens Associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19):

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/lab/lab-biosafety-guidelines.html

Many of these references are updated regularly, so be sure you go to go to the source when making safety policy about COVID-19 tasks.

Laboratorians are now literally on the front lines during this novel coronavirus pandemic. While many public and commercial services have been scaled back, restaurants are closing, and many people are staying or working at home, lab staff are doing their level best to keep coming to work despite the extremely unusual circumstances and hardships.

I am here to serve as well. If you have questions about how to safely navigate this national (and global) emergency while working in the lab, ask me (info@danthelabsafetyman.com). I will do my best to provide any lab safety resources you may need. Make sure the decisions you make during these days are safe, sound, and based on the most recent resources available to you.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

COVID19 and the Lessons We Learned from Prior Pandemics

With recent criticisms in the media, both foreign and domestic, on the United States’ response to COVID19 as well as accusations and summary conclusions that the United States is not a global health power house nor is it as prepared to handle COVID19 as nations around the world that are plagued by infectious challenges daily, it is important to revisit history of recent pandemics and the prior US responses to them to put the current interpretations of “failing” into perspective.

In 2003, the SARS epidemic began in China with the first possible case documented in November 2002. At the time, US relations with China were such that CDC field offices and CDC field officers, including permanent deploys and temporary lead deploys from central CDC in Atlanta, GA, were available to assist the Chinese healthcare system and government with the response to SARS. Through this effort, statements from CDC field directors such as, “This town is going to have a spike and we need 300 more beds,” was answered by the Chinese with a new hospital being built with 300 beds in less than 3 days. Such transparency, collaboration, and communication were possible at the time but relationships have diminished in recent years. During the SARS outbreak, there were 8,098 patients infected (known by positive testing) and 774 deaths (9.5%) which affected 26 countries including the US; however, the US only had 8 to 27 cases (depending on source) and no deaths. Although the first cases traced back to late 2002, the disease was not sequenced and declared until April 2003, but testing was available shortly thereafter. Control measures locally and globally with some help from testing stifled the pandemic in a matter of weeks and the threat was near zero by the end of 2003. No resurgence has occurred. From this outbreak, the US and the world learned how to deal with novel coronaviruses and how to coordinate and collaborate for future potential outbreaks. Such lessons include the need for transparent communication and direct in country collaboration, rapid move to testing distribution, and high-level knowledge of pandemics and who nations should respond.

In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic began. The CDC activated its emergency system within 7 days of the first case, the US and the WHO declared the pandemic within 9 days of the first case, and testing was available within 14 days of the first case. The US had 60.8 million cases (confirmed positive tests) with 274,000 hospitalizations (0.5%) and 12,469 deaths (4.5% of hospitalizations, 0.02% of cases). The incidence from the disease was due to the rapid respiratory spread very similar to routine influenza but on top of a system (including hospital processes and national approaches to testing with integrated public health laboratory systems) that was prepared and able to nimbly adapt. In this case the rapid advent of testing was crucial to controlling case, getting patients on treatment, and tracking the disease. H1N1 was then subsequently included in the annual influenza vaccines.

From 2012-2014, the MERS-CoV virus, originating from and primarily endemic in the Arabian Peninsula, was a challenge for global heatlh because of the high mortality rate (30 to 40%) and the very efficient spread of the virus. All cases arising outside of the Arabian Peninsula were traced to travelers from that region. The first known cases were in April 2012 with the first recognition of the virus causing the disease in September 2012. The CDC developed a test for MERS in 2012 and subsequently an EUA from FDA was granted on June 5, 2013. The first positive cases of MERS in the US occurred in May 2014, almost 1 year after testing had been available. To date, only 2 confirmed cases of MERS have been diagnosed in the US which were traveling healthcare workers who had treated patients in Saudi Arabia.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014-2016 had a total global case count of 27,000+ with 11,000+ deaths (46% mortality). However, in the US only 4 patients were ever diagnosed with EBOLA and 11 patients were treated for EBOLA with only 2 total deaths (18% mortality). Why was the case count so low for the US and why was the mortality nearly a 1/3rd of the overall epidemic? Immediate response from the US government to control incoming patients (the only transmission inside the US was from patients who were travelers to healthcare workers) and availability of testing prior to the outbreak (with the CDC). Nigeria was able to diagnose the first case in Lagos (a traveler from Liberia) because a scientist in Nigeria had developed a rapid EBOLA PCR six months before the outbreak occurred. Nigeria only had 8 deaths from 20 confirmed infections (40% mortality). Why did Nigeria get ahead of the game? Immediate response from government and availability of testing. The unfortunate results in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were less about lack of response and lack of testing and mostly due to poor infrastructure for health.

The current pandemic of COVID19 started on November 17th (earliest confirmed case in China) and was a reported disease cluster from China to WHO by December 31st, 2019. The first case in the US was documented to have occurred on January 19, 2020. The FDA, in response to information from central administration and pressure from multiple entities, allowed testing for COVID19 through Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) on February 28, 2020 (more than one month after the first US case). As of April 28, 2020, the US has had 1,026,771 confirmed cases (positive testing) and 58,269 deaths (5.7% mortality) affecting all 50 states in the setting of an unprepared system (i.e., insufficient testing, insufficient pandemic planning at the national level, insufficient in country data from source countries). Data has shown in the laboratory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus shares 74 to 90% genetic homology with the original SARS virus but has a 10-fold increased affinity for binding which suggests that its natural biological virulence could be 10x that of SARS. If proper systems, testing, and planning had been in place, we can conservatively estimate that there would currently be 102,667 confirmed cases in the US and 5,827 deaths. These excess cases and excess death are, therefore, a direct result of the lack of systems, testing, and planning (52,442 excess deaths of US citizens).

There are conspiracy theorists that argue SARS-CoV-2 was created or modified from a different virus by human manipulation with a most recent endorsement of HIV Nobel Prize Laureate Luc Montagnier—statements that were almost immediately refuted by other prominent scientists. If there was a credible threat from SARS-CoV-2 when the sequence was released, that would have been an even more convincing argument that preparation was needed. But the threat of SARS-CoV-2 from just the observed medical cases and initial reports should have warranted a brisk and complete response from leadership. That such responses were delayed because of a multitude of failed responses (pandemic planning, testing, situational awareness, field deployments, etc.) can be argued from now until the next pandemic occurs. But our collective prior experience with pandemics (4 of them in 2 decades) provided plenty of evidence and case-studies for how we should have responded.

ASCP along with other organizations reached out to our membership and the community for support of a call for a National Testing Strategy resulting in tens of thousands of letters to elected representatives and a subsequent plan for a National Testing Strategy released by the US government. The CARES Act released this week includes billions for testing.

These efforts are for our membership who are the medical laboratory professionals working 12 hours shifts to provide the testing needed by their patient populations.

These efforts are for our pathologist members who are informing and controlling hospital and government responses around testing through their rapid decisions and their expertise.

These efforts are for our pathologist’s assistance at all levels who keep anatomic pathology running with our pathology trainees despite massive volume challenges.

These efforts are for our PhD members whose expertise in science, design, and evidence acquisition is rapidly leading to new testing and eventually new vaccines.

These efforts are, most importantly, for our patients, the center of all that we do, to ensure that they have access to testing and the peace of mind they need to move forward from this pandemic.

References

  1. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20030411/sars-timeline-of-outbreak#1
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1904415/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002%E2%80%932004_SARS_outbreak
  4. https://www.fda.gov/media/72313/download
  5. https://www.who.int/csr/sars/testing2003_04_18/en/
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/about/history/sars/timeline.htm
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-pandemic-timeline.html
  8. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html
  9. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/mers/about/index.html
  10. https://www.cdc.gov/about/ebola/timeline.html
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_African_Ebola_virus_epidemic
  12. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3074991/coronavirus-chinas-first-confirmed-covid-19-case-traced-back
  13. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/27-04-2020-who-timeline—covid-19 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15562-9
  14. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/
  15. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2001191
  16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_testing
  17. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-04/21/c_138995464.htm
milner-small

-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.