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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Distractingly Sexy
June 15, 2015 4:10 PM by Michael Jones

After winning the Nobel Prize1 in 2001 for his research in cell division, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt recently made headlines for his attempt to prove the existence of foot-in-mouth disease while speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ). According to an article2 from the Guardian, Hunt’s “single-sex lab” comments were delivered while “addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists.” The effects of the remarks (seen below) were immediate.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” said Hunt at the WCSJ Conference. “Three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”2

Hunt partially apologized,3 but his efforts were too little, too late -- as the comments had already gone viral. An ongoing social media campaign featuring women from many different fields in the sciences using the hashtag, “#distractinglysexy,” has become increasingly popular.4 Hunt has since resigned5 from his post at University College London (UCL) following the social media backlash.

The Guardian article2 mentioned that the statistics for women working in science, technology or engineering (STEM) are low -- just 13 percent. It also cited the gap in academia, in which 84 percent of full-time STEM professors are male. In the clinical laboratory environment, however, the ratio seems to be less severe -- albeit similarly troubling.  ADVANCE for Laboratory’s 2014 salary survey pointed to disparaging wage and career gaps when analyzed based on gender -- despite an overall female majority.

As laboratory professionals, what do you think about the perception of women in science-related careers? 

References:

1. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/oct/08/research.highereducation1

2. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs

3. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/nobel-prize-winner-tim-hunt-partlyapologises-over-sexist-comments-and-says-he-was-just-being-honest-actually-10309577.html

4. http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jun/11/distractinglysexy-twitter-campaign-mocks-tim-hunts-sexist-comments

5. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/11/nobel-laureate-sir-tim-hunt-resigns-trouble-with-girls-comments

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"A Defining Moment"
June 2, 2015 1:04 PM by Michael Jones

The global fight against HIV has improved dramatically in the past decade, but the results of a recent study could lead to an enormous change in the way the virus is treated moving forward. An article from the New York Times noted how the study was stopped after just two months due to the drastic difference in outcomes. With those who received immediate treatment with antiretroviral drugs “53 percent less likely to die during the trial,” the impact of fast clinical action following a diagnosis was unprecedented. 

“This is a defining moment for social justice,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UN AIDS, in the New York Times article. “People will be scared, saying, ‘Oh, it will be a big number.’ But this puts an end to the false debate about whether to pay for treatment.”

While not necessarily in the budget, groups like The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have been pushing for better funding in an effort to start treatment more immediately for all patients internationally – a costly endeavor. According to the NY Times article, New York has recommended immediate treatment locally here in the Unites States since 2011, as the “several other studies have shown that people taking their drugs regularly are more than 90 percent less likely to infect others.” With that said, the story also noted that many patients are slow to start treatment while they are still healthy given the reputed harsh side effects of antiretroviral drugs from the 1990s. Fortunately, with the introduction of tenofovir in 2001, modern drugs have fewer side effects.

“The evidence for this has been building for quite some time,” said Susan P. Buchbinder, MD, director of HIV prevention at the San Francisco department of public health, in the story. “But now it’s clear that people should be offered treatment right away and told why it’s beneficial.”

Current international regulations vary depending on the respective nation. A normal CD4 count (CD4 cells per cubic millimeter) ranges between 500 and 1,200, but HIV patients routinely fall under 500 and “”full-blown AIDS” patients fall under 200. Although it is now being recommended that treatment starts at a 500 CD4 count, many nations simply don’t have the funding to start so soon. Due to the undeniable results of the recent study, there is potential for dramatic improvement of the standards for both local and international treatment. 

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Nanoparticles Assemble!
March 6, 2015 2:05 PM by Michael Jones

As a kid, the concept of humans using nanotechnology was something I assumed was reserved for science fiction, but apparently clinical research has already proved me wrong. According to a recent article from Dark Daily, not only do researcher possess the technology, but they have been studying the effect of nanoparticles in the diagnosis of cancer. The study, led by Nicholas J. Long, PhD, senior author and professor in the chemistry department at Imperial College London, utilizes nanoparticles manipulated to attach themselves to cancer cells in order to allow the presence of a tumor to appear more clearly in MRIs.

“Our aim is to help doctors spot something that might be cancerous much more quickly,” explained Long in the Dark Daily piece. “That would enable patients to receive effective treatments sooner, which would hopefully improve survival rates from cancer. ”

The story described the nanoparticles as coated in a protein that finds and adheres to cancer cells. Once these are found, they “self-assemble, aggregating into larger particles that show up well under MRI.” Despite the undeniable potential this technology has in the identification of cancers, however, there are still a lot of important questions to be answered. For example, scientists are unclear on the best size relative to their toxicity to the human body or how to improve the signals sent out by the tiny particles.

“We’re now looking at fine-tuning the size of the final nanoparticle, so that it is even smaller but still gives an enhanced MRI Image,” said Juan Gallo, PhD, of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, in the Dark Daily article. [“] If it is too small, the body will just secret it out before imaging. But too big, and it could be harmful to the body. Getting it just right is really important before moving to a human trial.”

Although the study is in its early phases, currently using mouse models, and the researchers still have a lot of work ahead of them, the plan is to be able to start human trials within three to five years. The article noted the study as an important example of multiple specialties working to improve cancer diagnostics in their own fields. The impact of success with the nanoparticles could have a substantial, long-term impact on the role of clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists, as well as radiologists and imaging professionals.

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Basket Cases
February 27, 2015 4:29 PM by Michael Jones

Thanks to the quick evolution of improved genetic sequencing capabilities, the concept personalized medicine has changed the way clinicians and physicians are thinking about patient treatment. Traditionally, the trial and testing period for clinical drugs going through the FDA approval process can be challenging, lengthy and exhausting for all parties involved – especially the patients. A recent article from the New York Times highlighted a new approach to drug prescriptions for cancer patients focused more on their individual genetic mutations than the specific type or origin of the cancer itself.

According to the article, Erika Hurwitz, a patient with a rare white blood cell cancer, was treated with a drug typically reserved for melanoma patients and somehow recovered despite the odds. The new technique, referred to as “basket studies,” involves screening patients for mutations and applying drugs that target those specific mutations regardless of the drug’s intended use or what part of the body the cancer has affected. Not only have these “blanket studies” been applied in individual healthcare facilities and networks, but the federal government has stepped in to continue the research with a screening program to be introduced in the spring.

Introduced fairly recently as the accessibility and price of genetic sequencing became reasonable, “Basket studies” are typically smaller and without control groups.  The studies have produced results in the extreme on either end of the spectrum, having both dramatically improved patients and shown no effect at all. Despite the black-and-white nature of the results, the article noted the drastically higher response percent of the new approach – a response rate of 50-60 percent as opposed to 10-20 percent in traditional studies, according to Richard Pazdur, MD, of the FDA in the NY Times story.

The NY Times story noted the Memorial Sloan Kettering study, which included Erika Hurwitz, saw several patients respond positively to the melanoma drug, but not everyone’s results were so successful. One stomach cancer patient, Eleni Vavas, entered the study, but didn’t respond to the drug. She passed away in July.

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Vaccination Perspectives
February 17, 2015 3:35 PM by Michael Jones

A combination of the continued national debate over the connection between autism and vaccines -- despite the hypothesized link having long-since been disproved -- and events like the measles outbreak spawning from Disneyland have led to a lot of vaccination-related headlines recently. Diseases like measles, which had been almost completely eliminated, have only resurfaced lately after movements in opposition of vaccinations became popularized. While many U.S. citizens consider vaccines to be perfectly safe and effective, there is also a growing population leaning the other way.

One particularly hard to digest piece of information, according to a piece from the Guardian, is that the millennial generation is actually the largest contributor to this expanding group -- specifically, “21% of people 18 and 29 believe in a link [to autism].” A different pole from TIME also had younger generations more inclined to support the idea that vaccines aren’t safe (though just 15 percent as opposed to 21 percent). Being a Millennial and having written about it somewhat extensively, I can certainly identify with the Guardian author’s similar situation and point-of-view.

A story noted above on the measles outbreak from the LA Times noted the importance of adult immunizations now more than ever, as “Adults pose a greater risk than children of passing on the disease because they travel and come into contact with more people.” It went on to note that some adults have not been fully vaccinated, due to a second dose only being recommended in 1989, and that there should be more “checkpoints between kindergarten and adulthood” in order to prevent these individuals from slipping through the cracks – this is especially relevant in educational organizations, where it’s important for both students and teachers to have been properly vaccinated.

Nonetheless, the TIME article brought up the interesting concept of “Herd immunization,” which relies on “92-95%” of a population to be vaccinated in order to safeguard the community. At present, “vaccination rates in the U.S. hover around 91%.” Although this isn’t necessarily a bad number, it could always be better and the recent upsurge in groups coming out against vaccinations could potentially lead to more troubling numbers.

As laboratory professionals, what are some of our readers’ thoughts on the subject? 

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Formaldehyde in E-Cigarettes
February 4, 2015 11:40 PM by Michael Jones

The electronic cigarette has been hailed as a significantly safer alternative to regular cigarettes, delivering nicotine through vapor rather than smoke, but little is known about their potential side long-term effects. An NPR article took a look into recently findings regarding formaldehyde in the “E-Cigs.” A form of the “known carcinogen” was discovered in the vapor by researchers.

“We found this form of formaldehyde at significantly higher concentrations than even regular cigarettes [contain] – between five[fold] and fifteenfold higher concentration of formaldehyde than in cigarettes,” explained David Peyton, PhD, a professor at Portland State University, in the NPR story.

Peyton went on to point out that formaldehyde contributes to the development of lung cancer. Although the chemical was observed at the highest voltage levels when using the electronic devices, it was also noted that, when used a lower levels, there was no presence of formaldehyde. In the article, George Conley, a representative from the American Vaping Association, reasoned that E-cigarettes are not typically used at these high levels. He continued, comparing it to the way steak can be overcooked cooked.

“If you hold the button down for 100 seconds, you could potentially produce 100 times more formaldehyde than you would ever get from a cigarette,” he said in the article. “But no human vaper would ever vape at that condition, because within one second their lungs would be very uncomfortable.”

The article noted that Peyton “hopes the government will tightly regulate the electronic devices,” but the FDA is still assessing the situation. Regardless of different positions surrounding the regulation of E-cigs, there seems to be a need for a better understanding and subsequent regulation of the devices. The extent to these regulations, however, could be up for debate.

 

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Vascular Damage and Alzheimer’s Disease
January 27, 2015 12:33 PM by Michael Jones

Between the attention attracted by the 2014 movie, “Still Alice,” and the release of new studies, Alzheimer’s disease has been a prominent topic of conversation lately. For patients and their families, the symptoms are all too familiar, and the origin is largely a mystery. An article from NPR recently discussed one possible cause of the disease.

In a study examining MRIs of patients “experiencing mild problems with thinking and memory,” researchers noticed the presence of leaky blood vessels in the Hippocampus. Upon further investigation, the researchers realized that the blood vessels in the hippocampus become “leakier in all people as they age,” but this is more evident in Alzheimer’s patients. Later studies on the autopsied brains of dementia patients confirmed “a breakdown in the blood-brain barrier,” which allows toxins to leak into the brain, damaging cells and tissue.

“This study gives patients and families hope for the future, hope that detecting leaky blood vessels early will provide the opportunity to stop dementia before it starts,” said Roderick Corriveau, PhD, program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in the NPR article.

After focusing on the hippocampus, it was discovered that the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s or Dementia patients was 50 percent more permeable that in those of the average, healthy brain.  These studies provided further evidence of the role of vascular damage in Alzheimer’s disease. The NPR article went on to note the use of pericyte cells, “which help prevent blood vessels in the brain from leaking,” as a potential treatment.

While this is not a cure for the disease, it is certainly a step in the right direction. By more fully understanding one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers, clinicians and physicians can be more aware of warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia. As such, they can begin treatment earlier.

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Ebola Vaccines
January 23, 2015 4:37 PM by Michael Jones

While the Ebola outbreak continues to impact much of West Africa, it appears to be starting to fade at last. According to a recent article in the New York Times, healthcare companies GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck have will be introducing vaccines for the Ebola Virus for testing in Liberia. The estimated 18,000 volunteers predicted to take part in the trial in two weeks will receive either a vaccine from one of the two companies or a placebo.

“This has been an unprecedented effort for everyone involved,” commented Andrew Witty, GSK’s chief executive, in the NY Times story.

The article went on to discuss some of the potential obstacles facing the trial. Although the decreased occurrence of Ebola is great news overall, it could also impact the results regarding the effectiveness of the vaccines as the disease diminishes. In order to avoid compromised results, the need to introduce a greater number of participating volunteers to the trial, expanding its reach outside of Liberia to Sierra Leone, was mentioned.

Regardless of whether or not there are enough Ebola cases, the data provided from the study combined with existing data from animal testing “could be enough for the vaccines to win regulatory approval from the United States.” The article continued, noting that, even if the vaccines are available too late given the downwards trends of this particular outbreak, there will be others for which they will be available in the future. Additionally, a trial for ZMapp, “a drug for patients already infected with the virus,” will also apparently be starting soon.

The Ebola outbreak has ravaged West African countries as the rest of the world has frantically searched for effective testing, treatments and possible cures. The latest information on potential vaccines and drugs ready for human trials could be good news for the individuals in danger of being infected in current – and future -- Ebola outbreaks. 

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Reprogrammed Cells and Radiation
December 29, 2014 5:34 PM by Michael Jones

It’s no big secret that being exposed to radiation can cause cancer. As humans, we rely on  radioactigve materials and manufacture technologies to harness that power for our benefit, but that doesn’t keep accidents from happening. According to an article from Newswise, a recent study published in Stem Cells not only examined the effects of radiation on stem cells, but also hypothesized on how to “reprogram” the cells to prevent potentially negative repercussions like the development of cancer.

“It’s about evolution driven by natural selection,” said James DeGregori, PhD, investigator and molecular genetics professor at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and School of Medicine respectively, as well as senior author of the study. “In a healthy blood system, healthy stem cells out-compete stem cells that happen to have the C/EBPA mutation. But when radiation reduces the health and robustness (what we call ‘fitness’) of the stem cell population, the mutated cells that have been there all along are suddenly given the opportunity to take over.”

The C/EBPA mutation mentioned in DeGregori’s quote refers to potentially life-threatening result of radiation exposure. According to the article, radiation put hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) at risk of differentiating unless a mutation in the C/EBPA gene was present, allowing them to remain stem cells while the other MSCs would die off. With no competition from the unhealthy HSCs damaged by radiation, the C/EBPA cells would multiply rapidly causing cancer. Despite this risk, DeGregori went on to explain that “an infusion of healthy HSCs after radiation exposure would likely allow the healthy blood system to out-compete the radiation-exposed HSC with their ‘programmed mediocrity’ (increased differentiation) and even HSC with cancer-causing mutations,” essentially allowing the body recalibrate its levels of healthy HSCs to prevent the spread of the cancer.   

“If I were working in a situation in which I was likely to experience full-body radiation, I would freeze a bunch of my HSCs,” continued DeGregori in the Newswise story. “But there’s also hope that in the future, we could offer drugs that would restore the fitness of stem cells left over after radiation.”

The battle against cancer has seen a lot of progress as clinical scientists and researchers have uncovered the many impacts of molecular diagnostics. In the case of leukemias and other blood cancers, however, the possibility of reprogramming cells to prevent the spread of cancerous cells stands as an important step in fighting the disease.

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New NIH Genomic Data Sharing Policy
December 11, 2014 5:23 PM by Michael Jones

In the age of readily available genetic sequencing, the overabundance of data has been noted around the globe. As big data solutions become more common and diverse, the concept of data sharing has been a focal point of discussions regarding the future of research. A recent release from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the introduction of a final Genomic Data Sharing (GDS) policy. The GDS will replace the previous standard, the Genome-Wide Association Studies’ (GWAS) data sharing policy. 

“Advances in DNA sequencing technologies have enabled NIH to conduct and fund research that generates ever-greater volumes of GWAS and other types of genomic data,” said Eric Green, MD, PhD NHGRI director, report co-author and co-chair of the trans-NIH committee that developed the GDS policy, in the release. “Access to these data through dbGaP [Database for Genotypes and Phenotypes] and according to the data management practices laid out in the policy allows researchers to accelerate research by combining and comparing large and information-rich datasets.”

According to the NIH release, as well as another article from the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC), one of the major concerns facing the new policy was assurance of patient privacy. In order to alleviate these concerns, the new policy requires a two-tiered system to ensure both anonymity for the donors and a wide variety of use for the information available to researchers. The data must be de-identified, and researchers are expected to obtain informed content prior to releasing that information for further research. Additionally, scientists are encouraged to obtain the broadest possible permissions in the potential sharing of patient data.  

“Everyone is eager to see the incredible deluge of molecular discoveries about disease translated into prevention, diagnostics, and therapeutics for patients,” continued Kathy Hudson, PhD, NIH deputy director for science, outreach and policy, in the NIH release. “The collective knowledge achieved through data sharing benefits researchers and patients alike, but it must be done carefully. The GDS policy outlines the responsibilities of investigators and instruments that are using the date and also encourages researchers to get consent from participants for future unspecified use of their genomic data.”

Genomic data represents the future of medicine. With the NIH’s new data sharing policy, researchers will now be afforded less restricted access to data, while patients can rest assured that their individual privacy remains secure. By standardizing and increase the ability to share important genetic information, research can excel both locally and abroad, taking into account larger statistics for research and fostering collaboration between researchers. 

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Struck a Nerve
October 15, 2014 10:45 AM by Lynn

All of the phlebotomists are probably cringing at the term I used in the headline, but it seems germane considering the overwhelming number of comments the ADVANCE editorial staff has received since the launch of our 2014 Salary Survey.  (If you haven’t yet completed the survey, time is running out! Go to http://laboratory-manager.advanceweb.com/Web-Extras/Online-Extras/The-2014-Laboratory-Salary-Survey.aspx)

Although we haven’t yet tabulated or released results, I am saddened by many of the comments. In past surveys, many noted they felt the pay was not on par with the amount of responsibility and level of importance that clinical laboratory professionals of all levels have, and this year’s survey is no exception. What is different, however, is the number of individuals who noted they would not recommend the profession to others, or who wouldn’t have gone into the profession had they known what they know now.

“Techs are underpaid, overworked and underappreciated, and yet we are expected to be experts in all areas of lab medicine, serve as consultants, perform administrative work, train new hires, conduct competency assessment, etc. Although I love my work, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't choose laboratory technology. Unfortunately, for all of the above mentioned reasons I cannot recommend the profession to young people,” writes one person.

And another notes: “I enjoy my job as a medical technologist, but I am planning to leave the field within the next few years. This is due to the fact that I have a high level of responsibility (antibody ID and selecting compatible units for patients) but still make less than an RN with a A.S. degree. We are also understaffed at my facility, with me being the only Blood Bank technologist on the nightshift. The position has become highly stressful and completely underappreciated in the healthcare setting. I am finishing my Masters of Science, then moving to a job that is less stressful and better paid.”

There are still a handful of you who do enjoy the work you do (thank you for those comments, too!), but it seems you are in the minority. So how do we change this? How can this profession rally together to positively change the perception and financial compensation for the critical role you play in healthcare?

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Ebola at Home
October 1, 2014 4:26 PM by Michael Jones

Ebola is a subject that’s been on everyone’s minds for weeks and, as such, has received a lot of media attention. I’ve covered the Zaire Ebolavirus before and even discussed the heroism of those responsible for treating victims and disposing of the bodies, but the situation in West Africa has recently expanded to the US. An article from the New York Times detailed the journey of a man who took a trip to visit family and ended up in isolation at a Texas hospital, as well as the precautions being taken both by the facility and the US government. 

“We have had a plan in place for some time now for a patient presenting with possible Ebola,” explained Edward Goodman, MD, an epidemiologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Tx., where the unidentified patient is currently being treated. “Ironically, we had a meeting the week before of all the stakeholders who might be involved. We were well prepared to care for this patient. ”

Passengers attempting to board a plane out of areas of West Africa are being screened for Ebola symptoms prior to take off, but as his symptoms hadn’t yet presented, the infected passenger was able to board his flight to visit family in the US. After a few days, he started to get sick, sought medical attention and was treated. According to the NY Times article, however, the early symptoms of the disease like fever and nausea can be easily mistaken for any number of diseases – even despite the heightened alert concerning patients with recent travel histories in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

After his symptoms started to worsen, the passenger went to the hospital and was put in isolation while they awaited his test results, which came back positive for Ebola. His family, as well as anyone he came into contact with during the infectious period of his stay, has also been brought into isolation. This is the first instance of Ebola in the US and the first time it’s been diagnosed outside of West Africa. Upon confirming the test, the CDC sent out a team to handle the situation in Texas while the Obama administration began a massive social media campaign to calm and educate the public.

“You cannot get Ebola through the air, water or food in the US,” said a post on the White House’s official Twitter account according to the NY Times article. “Ebola can only spread from contact with the blood or body of fluids of a person or animal who is sick with or has died from the disease.”

The appearance of the disease in the US is unprecedented, but healthcare facilities not unprepared. The NY Times article noted, “Many health experts said it would only be a matter of time before it reached the United States,” and there has been a lot of preparation across the country for such an event. Additionally, the isolation protocols established by the CDC were described in the article, in the words of Thomas R Frieden, MD, MPH, CDC director, as “tried and true.” He went on, commenting, “I have no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the [US].”

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The Big Squeeze
September 11, 2014 9:40 AM by Michael Jones

It’s no big secret that clinical laboratories have been subjected a series of strict budget and reimbursement cuts over the past few years. Rather than easing in the coming year, these cuts are predicted to remain equally rigid, if not more so. A recent news briefing from Dark Daily pointed out the unprecedented nature of cost-cutting measures in laboratories across the United States compared to any other time in recent history.

“Labs today face a stark reality: not only are they getting less money today from their parent organizations and health insurance plans, but they are entering a multi-year period that will see equally dramatic reductions in lab test reimbursement and lab revenue,” commented Robert Michel, editor-in-chief of the Dark Daily Report and Dark Daily.

Specifically, the release noted that the current fiscal situation in clinical laboratory is harsher than it has been in the last 25 years, and there’s no end in sight. For healthcare facilities facing reduced funding, the Dark Daily story also discussed the impact and importance of implementing methods like LEAN, Six Sigma and “process improvement methods with consistent success.” According to the article, laboratories that utilize these approaches tend to remain successful despite the new restrictions.

“Two big challenges confront the nation’s clinical laboratories and pathology groups,” continued Michel. “One is the need to cut costs aggressively in the face of shrinking lab budgets and failing lab revenue. The second is how to increase the value of lab testing services the lab delivers to physicians, patients, payers.”

These cuts are certainly not new and are predicted to continue. As healthcare facilities stretch both funds and personnel to cover for the increased financial pressure to continue providing the same level of care -- essentially doing more with less – managers and administrators who can roll with the punches on cost-cutting measures to adapt are going to be the most successful. Similarly, medical personnel are increasingly well-versed in multiple areas of the laboratory. 

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Unsung Heroes
August 29, 2014 1:53 PM by Michael Jones

I’ve discussed the spread of the Zaire ebolavirus before, but as it continues to overwhelm countries in West Africa, scientists have been able to track the virus in real time. A recent article from NPR followed a team of researchers as they collected and analyzed data on the genetic structure of the virus from its victims in Sierra Leone. As the researchers monitored the ebola spread, they noticed that it was rapidly mutating, “about twice as quickly as it did while circulating among animals in the past decade or so.”

The data was collected onsite as soon as possible and, according to the article, resulted in the death of five scientists who contracted the virus. Despite this, the tremendous effort led to the gathering of 99 ebola genomes for analysis. While the virus’ genome contains only seven genes (relatively small in comparison to the human genome’s 20,000), the article noted that the researchers have already, “found over 250 mutations that are changing in real time as we’re watching” -- a figure with significant implications for current treatments, which are experimental and rely on the known genetic makeup of the virus.

Meanwhile, men and women serving in healthcare facilities, clinics or in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders are consistently putting themselves at risk for the dangerous infection. These are nurses, doctors and laboratorians alike -- both local and international. One particularly brave group of workers heroes was highlighted in another NPR story, which followed the people responsible for collecting and disposing of the bodies of ebola victims in Liberia.

According to the story, the virus has already been responsible for 700 deaths and over 1,300 cases. The corpses remain highly contagious and can add to the already devastating rate of infection in Monrovia. These crews of “body collectors” must gather the bodies to dispose of them safely -- a task that carries unbelievable risks -- and prevent the further spread of the virus. In order to prepare, each collector wears protective gear, including surgical scrubs, rubber boots, white plastic jumpsuits, face masks and goggles -- and they all pray for luck together before getting started.

Whether it’s the scientists working to analyze the virus in the search for a cure or the hands-on professionals working with ebola on a day-to-day basis, their role is crucial. They are all unsung heroes. 

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Bears and 'Betes
August 14, 2014 3:47 PM by Michael Jones

Lately, I find myself becoming a little jealous of bears. That’s right, bears – but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, it’d be great to hang out in creeks during the summer months, eating nothing but fresh salmon and berries all day, every day. I guess it’d also be pretty fantastic to be able to hibernate and sleep away the winter too, but a recent blog post from NPR discussed some surprising physiological advantages of bears -- specifically in terms of their body’s response to their diet.

According to NPR blog, “Grizzly bears can easily double their body fat in the months leading up to hibernation.” This kind of rapid weight gain in humans can lead to any number of dangerous conditions, but the post highlighted the development of insulin resistance leading to the occurrence of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance occurs when the body is forced to “produce more and more insulin to control blood sugar,” turning it into fat. Eventually, the body becomes resistant. Type 2 diabetes is the result of the pancreas shutting down insulin production as a result.

So, why doesn’t this happen to grizzlies? In the blog post, a research team from Amgen Inc., led by Kevin Corbit, PhD, discovered that the bears become more and less sensitive to insulin before, during and after periods of hibernation. Kara Manke, the NPR blogger, wrote, “assuming that, like humans, bears became less sensitive to insulin when they gained weight,” the researchers subjected each of the six bears being monitored to a relatively small (human) dose of insulin just before they were supposed to enter hibernation. The results were almost catastrophic.

As it turns out, unlike humans, “the bears were actually most sensitive to insulin just before hibernation, when they were at their largest.” So, the insulin nearly killed them due to overdose. The researchers then hypothesized on the changing nature of the bears’ insulin resistance. In the article, Corbit noted that figuring out what allows the bears to regulate their insulin sensitivity could also benefit people. The impact of this could have enormous potential for patients with type 2 diabetes.

“I think giving insulin is making people much sicker,” said Corbit in the NPR blog. “I’m hoping that whatever we find is going to ramp up the insulin sensitivity enough that we don’t have to supplement with insulin at all.”

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