The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the critical work of medical laboratory scientists

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As the country anxiously follows progress in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, doctors rely on 19andconvalescent plasma therapy of the last century to treat people infected with the virus.

Their dependence on therapy, first used in the 1890s to treat patients with diphtheriashines a light on the often hidden work of medical laboratory scientists like Steven King.

King, a student at Metropolitan State University in Denver Colorado Center for Medical Laboratory Sciences, is completing a clinical rotation at Colorado Children’s Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. It focuses on blood banking – ensuring that blood products such as red blood cells, cryoprecipitate, platelets and COVID-19 convalescent plasma are compatible for a patient. The hospital will hire him full-time for a lab position after completing the post-baccalaureate program.

When a person is infected with the novel coronavirus and recovers from it, their blood is rich in antibodies that their immune system has produced to help them fight off the virus, King said. Without a vaccine, doctors rely on preventive treatments. One infuses antibody-rich blood plasma processed by medical laboratory scientists into infected patients who may not yet have produced antibodies to the virus.

“It was a pretty unique experience and opportunity to do our rotations at a time like this during a pandemic,” King said. “It’s an important thing that we do, and it’s been quite a learning experience to see this side.”

MSU Denver’s one-year CCMLS program prepares students for professional certification in medical laboratory science through post-baccalaureate study at an educational institution and laboratory in Aurora. The lab is one of the University’s innovative and lifelong learning programs. Students spend six months in lectures and in the laboratory before beginning clinical rotation courses in more than 30 affiliated laboratories all over Colorado. This clinical course provides essential experience in blood banking, clinical chemistry, hematology, immunology, and microbiology. After completing the program, students take an American Society for Clinical Pathology national certification exam to practice as a medical laboratory scientist.

Medical laboratory scientists work behind closed doors in facilities rarely seen by the public, said Karen Myers, director of CCMLS. But as Colorado and the country battle the spread of the coronavirus and struggle to find treatments for those infected, the medical lab is now a frontline position.

Steven King, a student at MSU Denver’s Colorado Center for Medical Laboratory Science, is completing a clinical rotation at Colorado Children’s Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. King is focused on blood banking, including making sure COVID-19 convalescent plasma is compatible for a patient. Photo by Lauren Anderson/Children’s Hospital of Colorado

“If you ask a man on the street, he doesn’t know who we are,” Myers said. “That’s because we’re scientists and we’re pretty quiet.”

These scientists generate analytical data and COVID-19 test results while overseeing test selection, validating test methods when tests are first introduced into a laboratory, maintaining instrumentation and assurance quality and, like King, conserving valuable COVID-19 recovery plasma.

“We don’t get a lot of public credit, and what we do is behind the scenes,” he said. “We are the science behind the medicine.”

Learning in times of pandemic

When students like King began their clinical rotations in January, the coronavirus was just beginning to emerge in Wuhan, China. But as the United States witnessed its first cases of COVID-19 caused by community spread in late February and early March, Myers told his 30 students to follow all scientific developments.

“(The pandemic) is something that doesn’t happen very often, and (students) are on the front line to observe how a disease process develops, how (disease) is treated, and how the human body reacts to it,” she said. noted.

While experts call for more coronavirus testing in Colorado and the country, no one is talking about the medical laboratory scientists who are responsible for setting up the tests and ensuring the quality of the tests once they are established in clinical labs, Myers said. Indeed, the field of medical laboratory sciences is experiencing shortages. The need for more graduates is expected to grow as new methodologies, especially in molecular diagnostics, promise more analytical techniques that will support not just COVID-19, but all patient diagnosis and treatment.

Today, medical laboratory scientists are having a huge impact during the pandemic. And because the need for their expertise is in such high demand, MSU Denver students enrolled in the Medical Laboratory Science program are now also working on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

“Our students are very, very good at what they do. They have a rigorous program, they are well prepared and really responsive,” said Myers. “We had good feedback and we are really proud of it. As medical professionals, (medical laboratory scientists) are always very happy that we can help patients. »

MSU Denver students Steven King and Cheyenne Lesniak work together in the blood bank lab at Colorado Children’s Hospital Anschutz Medical Campus. Clinical courses provide critical experience in blood banking, clinical chemistry, hematology, immunology, and microbiology. Photo by Lauren Anderson/Children’s Hospital of Colorado

Roadrunners on the front line

A graduate of MSU Denver CCMLS, Spencer Laidig was majoring in microbiology when he enrolled in the program, which he says united his passions for science and helping others.

Today, he works in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at UCHealth Anschutz, where he analyzes COVID-19 tests. The lab began preparing for the pandemic in February, when the first U.S. coronavirus cases surfaced, he said.

“There was no form of testing, so we didn’t know how we would test for coronavirus,” he said. “We just knew we had to test for respiratory viruses.”

When a person is infected with the novel coronavirus and recovers from it, their blood is rich in antibodies that their immune system has produced to help them fight off the virus, King said. Photo by Lauren Anderson/Children’s Hospital of Colorado

As February rolled into March, the UCHealth Anschutz Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory began performing COVID-19 testing while continuing to work during flu season. Now the lab is gearing up for even more work as Colorado slowly reopens under Gov. Jared Polis’ Safer at Home guidelines.

“Our daily life has been turned upside down,” Laidig said. “There are people coming in at 3am just to get started, and people don’t even leave until 1am.”

The CCMLS program helped prepare him for his job as it taught him to be mindful, to think critically and to be aware of what is going on around him, he said.

“There are a lot of reasons to stress in this pandemic. People are dying and (patients) need to know (test results),” Laidig said. “You have this in mind when you run tests, but you know you are running them effectively. Even though these are samples, there are real people behind them, and it’s crucial that we do this to the best of our abilities.

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