As I was waking up this morning, I heard news reports that federal and state attorneys are partnering to press criminal charges in response to last year’s fungal meningitis outbreak. For those not following the story, over 750 cases of fungal meningitis are linked to contaminated steroids produced by a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts. USA Today reports, “Inspectors found a host of potential contaminants at the company’s Framingham, Mass., plant, including standing water, mold, water droplets and dirty equipment. Fungus was found in more than 50 vials from the pharmacy.”
This case has been a nightmare for patients and families nationwide; 64 patients died and many have long-term complications from the infection. Most patients received methylprednisolone injections for back pain; none bargained for outcomes this complicated and dire.
I’ve followed this story for a while because Jill Adler-Moore, CSUPERB SPC member and professor at Cal Poly Pomona, told me about it as cases were happening. She invented Ambisome – a therapeutic agent (liposomal amphotericin B) used to treat fungal infections. As the outbreak-associated infections multiplied, there was a nationwide push to find treatment options for patients. Jill consulted on therapeutic options, along with her industry partners at Gilead Sciences. There were – and still are – fundamental questions on the most effective antifungal therapy and duration of treatment to help guide clinical treatment.
But the part of Jill’s story that fascinated me was the nationwide scramble to connect multi-disciplinary experts working at pharmaceutical companies and in public health agencies with clinicians on the front line so that the best treatment options were available for patients. This real-time, cross-organizational collaboration required an amazing level of cooperation, partnership and urgency. How many of us who have worked as bench researchers have been called in to address a public health emergency?
We adopted that question as the guideline for recruiting speakers to open the 26th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium. Jill will be there to introduce her colleague, Gerard Jensen, the Director of Technical Services from Gilead. We are also fortunate to hear from public health agency and academic speakers as well. Dr. Betsy Thompson is the Chief Medical Officer for the San Francisco Regional Office of the US Public Health Service; she’s also worked for the CDC and can give a big picture perspective on public health collaborations to respond not only to emergency outbreaks, but also chronic conditions. Dr. Robert Lindhardt, Professor of Biocatalysis & Metabolic Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will talk about his role in understanding the source of contaminated blood thinners, work for which he won the 2010 USP Award for an Innovative Response to a Public Health Challenge. All three speakers can explain what it means to be a problem-solver working as part of a high-performing, multi-disciplinary team.
Symposium registration closes next Monday (December 2nd). We accepted 263 research posters from 21 CSU universities, so we expect over 675 at the Santa Clara Marriott January 9-11. It should be yet another grand, multi-disciplinary opportunity to ”…expose attendees to ways of thinking and techniques that are different from the ones they already know.” (Bruce Alberts, Science, February 15, 2013). I hope you can join us.