Lab Matters Fall 2016 - Page 30

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Bacteriologist Taryn Redding accessions specimens for GC / Chlamydia testing

Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory : Moving Forward with Dedication and Vision

by Nancy Maddox , MPH , writer

The state of Massachusetts crams a lot of excitement into just over 10,000 square miles of land area . The official government website touts “ the best island in the world ” ( Nantucket ), “ America ’ s oldest and most beloved ballpark ” ( Fenway ), “ the world ’ s greatest clam chowder ,” gorgeous beaches ( on Cape Cod and Martha ’ s Vineyard ), 12 ski areas and “ small town charm and outdoor fun in the beautiful Berkshires .” Add a rich dose of colonial-era history ( complete with witches ), all the cultural attractions of Boston and “ wicked sweet accents ” and who can resist a visit ?

Michael Pentella , PhD , head of the Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory joined the lab in 2013 . However , his view of The Bay State is seen through the prism of a long-time laboratory scientist . He said , “ We have a wonderful microbiology community here ,” encompassing Boston Medical Center , Beth Israel Deaconess , Boston Children ’ s Hospital , Harvard Medical School , Harvard School of Public Health , the Broad Institute , the Lincoln Institute and myriad other public health partners .
We continue to find ways to strengthen communication and collaboration with our epidemiologists as a key response partner . Despite a tight fiscal environment , the lab and Epidemiology have been working together very diligently to respond to the ongoing Zika outbreak .
– Sandra Smole , PhD
Pentella points out that New England was the first part of the country to form its own laboratory directors ’ group , the Northeast Environmental and Public Health Laboratory Directors ( NEEPHLD ), which has been active since the 1970s . He said , “ It ’ s really nice to see that group take on projects that benefit everyone in the region ,” such as joint continuity of operations planning , shared analytical services and coordinated grant submissions .
Pentella also notes that Massachusetts has some distinct public health challenges . Although the state has no Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and only a “ very small population ” of Aedes albopictus — meaning residents are at low risk for Zika virus and other illnesses transmitted by these disease vectors — there is a great deal of travel by residents to areas where these diseases are endemic . Thus , the laboratory must be prepared to test for them . Sandra Smole , PhD , who directs the laboratory ’ s molecular biology and virology division , said ,
“ Our laboratory Zika experience is a combination of elements of the white powder BT response , the 2009 H1N1 response and Ebola all rolled into one : it is exceedingly complex and evolving , and has required implementation of multiple new assays across three different internal labs , coupled with close lab and epi coordination . . . all with direct patient impact .” While local Zika transmission is unlikely , the state has a healthy population of Culiseta melanura mosquitoes and has seen a small number of cases of the eastern equine encephalitis virus they transmit .
Although The Bay State has just 6.8 million residents , its busy air traffic — with over 5.5 million international passengers at Boston Logan Airport in 2015 — translates into increased risk for other exotic illnesses as well . “ We receive travelers from all over the world , coming from places with endemic diseases we don ’ t normally experience here ,” said Pentella . Thus , his goal for the public health laboratory is to stay on the “ cutting edge ” of test technology for a wide range of infectious pathogens : “ If we detect them early , we can keep them from spreading .”
The laboratory ’ s long history begins in 1894 , when it was just the second state public health laboratory established in the United States . In 1947 it moved from more modest housing to its current campus in Jamaica Plain , just six miles from downtown Boston , six miles from the Atlantic Coast and overlooking the beautiful 265-acre Arnold Arboretum . The initial Jamaica Plain laboratory facility was the former mansion home of businessmanphilanthropist Benjamin Bussey . It sat not far from the Bussey Institute , Harvard University ’ s first undergraduate school of agriculture and horticulture . In the early 1970s , the state built a new laboratory facility — an eight-story , 189,000-square-foot , concrete structure in the brawny style of Danish Brutalism — adjacent to the mansion . The combined Massachusetts Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences remain there today , although the site is now part of the UMASS medical school campus . The old Bussey Institute stables — once home to horses used for production of diphtheria antitoxin — were refurbished to serve as office space for state epidemiologists . In 2008 , the building was christened the William A . Hinton State Laboratory Institute in honor of Harvard Medical School ’ s first African American professor , who developed a simple , highly accurate test for syphilis .
Today , Pentella and his staff are readying for a “ complete , wall-to-wall renovation ” of the current building . “ We ’ re trying to think 30 years into the future ,” he said . The state has allocated $ 82.7 million for the project , which is still in the early planning stage .
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