During a typical week, the molecular cytogenetics core laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine focuses on preparing cell samples to help researchers study the structure and function of DNA and genes. From chromosome painting to using fluorescent probes to explore human and mouse genomes, the lab plays an essential role in genetic research for dozens of Einstein scientists.
In mid-March, the core, along with other Einstein labs not engaged in COVID-19 research, wound down its usual activities as the pandemic swept through New York City. Einstein and research institutions across the country temporarily reduced operations in order to keep employees safe from infection.
But as the pandemic peaked locally, New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) initiated an ambitious plan to produce “homegrown” kits to test hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers for COVID-19 infection. Widespread testing provides the critical information needed to empower health officials to rapidly identify infected individuals in order to control the disease’s spread.
Answering the Call for Help
“The NYCEDC reached out to Einstein and asked if we had a lab that would be able to manufacture one of the crucial elements of the testing kits: the liquid viral transport medium, or VTM, that preserves samples of the virus on nasal swabs,” said Harris Goldstein, M.D., associate dean for scientific resources and professor of pediatrics and of microbiology & immunology.
Under the direction of Dr. Goldstein and Brian Pelowski, M.B.A., assistant dean for scientific operations, employees from several Einstein administrative departments and the molecular cytogenetic core lab’s leaders, Cristina Montagna, Ph.D., associate professor of genetics and of pathology, and Jidong Shan, Ph.D., research assistant professor of genetics, answered the city’s call for help.
Within weeks, the core lab developed and implemented the complex logistics and stringent safety measures for lab personnel to begin producing the initial batches of VTM. In parallel, the NYCEDC recruited other partners: a Manhattan company that started printing 3-D swabs and a Brooklyn warehouse where workers prepared to receive the materials and assemble the COVID-19 test kits.
After an external lab validated the initial batches of Einstein-produced VTM for its ability to preserve the virus, production at Einstein ramped up quickly. By late May, the lab was producing 50,000 tubes of VTM each week, completing a remarkable operational transformation at the height of the pandemic.
With the Bronx as one of the leading hot spots in the country for COVID-19 infections and our clinical colleagues at Montefiore Health System at the forefront of treating infected patients, our core lab personnel and Einstein staff were highly motivated to mobilize quickly to support the city’s need.
Harris Goldstein, M.D.
Makeover: From Cell Analysis to VTM Production
Through their respective work, Einstein and NYCEDC, a nonprofit that serves as the city’s official economic development corporation whose stated mission is to implement strategies to enhance the city’s life sciences and biotech research, had already built a strong relationship.
“New York City has some of the greatest academic medical centers in the world, and we were perfectly positioned to help the NYCEDC produce a testing kit that would enable people to know if they have COVID-19,” Dr. Goldstein said. “With the Bronx as one of the leading hot spots in the country for COVID-19 infections and our clinical colleagues at Montefiore Health System at the forefront of treating infected patients, our core lab personnel and Einstein staff were highly motivated to mobilize quickly to support the city’s need.”
The Einstein VTM team, coordinated by Mr. Pelowski, faced a number of logistical challenges for the lab makeover: obtaining large quantities of growth media, antimicrobial solutions, and other ingredients for the VTM; tracking down thousands of pipettes and the test tubes to hold the VTM and nasal swabs; and purchasing labels, packing materials, and boxes for shipping. Einstein’s procurement staff sourced and obtained the items within weeks, while employees in the receiving department handled truckloads of incoming and outgoing shipments.
At the same time, Einstein’s facilities experts worked to rapidly implement lab modifications to meet the high production goal. In areas formerly used as computer desks, they created the required plumbing and electrical connections to install several biosafety ventilation hoods. The special sterile work stations were needed to ensure safety while assembling the VTM product and at the same time allowing for proper social distancing among lab technicians. Each night, members of the housekeeping department picked up hundreds of boxes of VTM and loaded them into couriers’ vans headed to the Brooklyn assembly site.
There’s always a new challenge with this project and now we’re looking to scale up with more automation for printing labels and producing the VTM. It keeps you on your toes to find the solutions.
Brian Pelowski, M.B.A.
“It’s been exhilarating and inspiring,” Mr. Pelowski said. “There’s always a new challenge with this project, and now we’re looking to scale up with more automation for printing labels and producing the VTM. It keeps you on your toes to find the solutions.”
“As a medical school focused on education and research to improve the health and well-being of humanity, this NYCEDC project fits perfectly into our core mission,” Dr. Goldstein added. “We feel it’s appropriate for us to be involved in this city initiative, and we’re proud to be part of an effort to increase testing capacity that should prevent additional COVID-19 outbreaks and keep people safe.”
Posted on: Wednesday, June 10, 2020