Adapting Our Projects, Our Experiments, and Ourselves to Support COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually everyone’s lives and business, and Promega is no exception. If you’re a frequent reader of Promega Connections, you have probably noticed that many of our recent blog posts have mentioned the novel coronavirus.

Madison Scientific Applications Team working on projects before physical distancing.

As Applications Scientists at Promega, we have adapted our work to enable support of our Promega colleagues and their customers as they respond to the pandemic. Like other groups in the company, we have ramped up our efforts. Our team typically has a broad focus on a variety of projects from across market segments of the company. During the second week of March, we switched to completely focus on virus-related experiments. Everyone on our team was in the lab collaborating on a large project to determine which kits could be used to purify viral nucleic acid from universal transport medium for virus (UTM®) and sputum, knowing that customers would be using any kit that they had on hand to do testing quickly. We completed testing in two days and data analysis and write-up within another couple of days.

In the last six weeks, we have worked on over 30 projects and completed almost 20 of them. In some cases, we identified, resourced, and began projects in the same day. In other cases, we completed projects within a day or two of receiving the request. You can find some of our data, presented as “Viral RNA Extraction Application Notes”, here.

Many projects originated from direct questions from global branches, Technical Services, and other internal colleagues on behalf of their customers. Some projects resulted from a need we identified, such as testing alternative storage methods for swab transport due to shortage of UTM®. Projects ranged from testing purification kits with relevant sample types, to comparing amplification reagents, and participating in work on forthcoming virus-related products.

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Just Keep Swimming: How the Wisdom of a Blue Cartoon Fish Can Inspire Us Amid COVID-19

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger Karen Stakun, Global Brand Manager at Promega.

Wise words from a forgetful blue fish are uniting Promega employees during these trying days. Initiated by our VP of Operations as a rallying call to employees and reinforced through a kind gesture from the Hollywood writer and director who dreamed up the fish, I invite you to join Promega as we “Just Keep Swimming.”

Those words were uttered by Dory, a blue tang with short-term memory loss, in the 2003 animated movie Finding Nemo. Now a classic, it tells the story of Marlin, an overprotective clownfish, who searches the ocean for his missing son Nemo. Dory is his sometimes-unwelcome companion. Desperate to find his son, Marlin grows exhausted and begins to feel defeated, but Dory will not let him give up. Her motivation is simple yet potent. “Just Keep Swimming.”

Setting the Scene

As COVID-19 was emerging in China, Promega began scaling up manufacturing in January to meet the growing global need for testing products. As epidemic became pandemic, and demand quickly became unprecedented, we moved swiftly to increase capacity and add more shifts at our Madison manufacturing facilities, all while ensuring the safety of our employees.

All of this takes dedicated people, especially those on our operations team, working long hours in an atmosphere of global uncertainty. Dedication is in abundance at Promega, as every employee feels a deep commitment to humanity’s struggle against this disease. However, Chuck York, our VP of Operations, says he began seeing the team struggle with the never-ending increases in demand. Despite record product totals, it could be demoralizing for a group that prides itself on always being able to deliver what customers need.

That’s when Chuck recalled one of his family’s favorite movies. “I love the never-give-up aspect of Finding Nemo and in particular the net scene.” Toward the end of the movie, Dory and several other fish find themselves caught in a fishing net. With Nemo’s help, the fish realize they can turn Dory’s mantra into action. They keep swimming together in the same direction and break free of the net.   

“I wanted the team to focus on what we could control, doing all we can each day to keep product flowing. And we were and are doing an outstanding job of that. I also hoped to lighten the mood and bring a smile to peoples’ faces. Our ‘net’ is the ever surging COVID-19 demand, but eventually we will overcome if we just keep swimming.”

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Wisconsin’s Public-Private Partnership to Increase COVID-19 Testing Capacity

This blog is written by Sara Mann, General Manger, Promega North America Branch

Promega is part of a new public-private partnership among Wisconsin industry leaders to increase the state’s laboratory testing capacity for COVID-19. I am pleased to represent Promega in this effort. The valuable insight we at Promega are gaining every day through our participation in this innovative partnership not only benefits Wisconsin labs, it also provides unique understandings about how we can best meet the testing needs of our customers around the world.

Promega Maxwell Instrument shown in a laboratory.

The new partnership includes laboratory support from Exact Sciences, Marshfield Clinic Health System, UW Health, as well as Promega. These organizations, along with the Wisconsin Clinical Lab Network, are sharing knowledge, resources, and technology to bolster Wisconsin’s testing capacity. Our goal is to help labs find the quickest approach to the most tests with their validated methods.

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RNA Extraction for Clinical Testing—Do Not Try this with Home-brew

This blog was written with much guidance from Jennifer Romanin, Senior Director IVD Operations and Global Service and Support, and Ron Wheeler, Senior Director, Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs at Promega.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Back in the day when we all walked two miles uphill in the snow to get to our laboratories, RNA and DNA extraction was a home-brew experience. You made your own buffers, prepped your own columns and spent hours lysing cells, centrifuging samples, and collecting that fluorescing, ethidium bromide-stained band of RNA in the dark room from a tube suspended over a UV box. Just like master beer brewers tweak their protocols to produce better brews, you could tweak your methodology and become a “master isolater” of RNA. You might get mostly consistent results, but there was no guarantee that your protocol would work as well in the hands of a novice.

Enter the biotechnology companies with RNA and DNA isolation kits—kits and columns manufactured under highly controlled conditions delivering higher quality and reproducibility than your home-brew method. These systems have enabled us to design ever more sensitive downstream assays–assays that rely on high-quality input DNA and RNA, like RT-qPCR assays that can detect the presence of a specific RNA molecule on a swab containing only a few hundred cells. With these assays, contaminants from a home-brew isolation could result in false positives or false negatives or simply confused results. Reagents manufactured with pre-approved standard protocols in a highly controlled environment are critical for ultra sensitive tests and assays like the ones used to detect SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

The Science of Manufacturing Tools for Scientists

There are several criteria that must be met if you are producing systems that will be sent to different laboratories, used by different people with variable skill sets, yet yield results that can be compared from lab to lab.

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The Art of Being a Field Scientist

Today’s article is written by guest blogger Vince Debes, this year’s winner of the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. He will be starting a Master of Science program in Geological Sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University this fall.

Grand Tetons at night

It’s incredible how seemingly insignificant actions can lead to major events years down the road. When my partner and I were testing out our new camera shutter remotes in the Grand Tetons on the way to do field work in Yellowstone, I never imagined an image we captured would lead to a grand prize in the Promega Art Contest for Creative Scientists. The four-minute-long exposure was taken at midnight with a full moon and shows the ghostly, almost imperceptible, movements of Colter Bay marina vessels against a backdrop of trailing stars and the stolid Tetons.

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Building a Collaborative Research Network to Address a Rare Disease

Early June 2016

Chris had extreme leg pain off and on for about a month. Pain that came and went, creeping in slowly but sometimes with extreme intensity. Based on x-rays an orthopedist diagnosed a torn hamstring that was on the mend. We were sent home to rest and ice his muscles.

One Sunday Chris played in the pool for 5 hours straight and didn’t wince once. The following week he was fine so he went to soccer practice on Wednesday and swim team practice the next day. At 11:30 that night he woke up screaming in pain. Same leg. Same spot. Back again.

Late June 2016

We were on vacation in Greece. The pain started again, severe and intense and scary, so bad he couldn’t sleep lying down in a bed.  Desperate, we ended up in a Greek hospital… the local pediatrician was wonderful and recommended we fly home and see an orthopedic doctor as soon as possible…a terrifying flight home: No answers and a pit in our stomachs. Chris was in a wheelchair.

July 2016

We finally got the orthopedist to order the MRI. The MRI results were what every parent fears: “leukemia or lymphoma” and a referral to an oncologist.  After many invasive tests, the oncologist said it was probably not cancer.  We felt such relief, but we were left with no answers for all his pain. We moved on to infectious disease.

August 2016

The infectious disease specialist said they could not culture anything so they didn’t believe that Chris had an infection. Again, incomplete answers.  We were then passed off to rheumatology.  The frustration of not having any answers and our child still in pain was heart-breaking, isolating, and terrifying.

Based on the bone biopsy and MRIs the rheumatologists finally gave Chris a diagnosis: Chronic Recurrent Multifocal Osteomyelitis (CRMO often pronounced “chromo” for short).

The good news: it was not cancer; the bad news: very little is known about CRMO because it is a rare disease.

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A Quick Guide To Finding That Next Step After A Post-Doc

On February 13, 2020, a group of post-docs from the University of Wisconsin – Madison had the opportunity to spend a day at the Promega headquarters in Fitchburg, WI. Throughout the day, the group heard from a list of speakers including Tom Livelli, VP of Life Sciences, and representatives from Technical Services, Sales, R&D and Marketing. The day concluded with a tour of the Feynman Manufacturing Center, where attendees saw production and packing lines, as well as training and QC labs.

Promega employees and UW Post-Docs having lunch

On February 13, 2020, a group of post-docs from the University of Wisconsin – Madison had the opportunity to spend a day at the Promega headquarters in Fitchburg, WI. Throughout the day, the group heard from a list of speakers including Tom Livelli, VP of Life Sciences, and representatives from Technical Services, Sales, R&D and Marketing. The day concluded with a tour of the Feynman Manufacturing Center, where attendees saw production and packing lines, as well as training and QC labs.

“It’s always encouraging as a scientist to hear about how each person is different and how they’ve had different twists and turns,” says Alexa Heaton, a post-doc studying immunotherapy interactions in mice. “It’s great to hear from such a range of people and the different job types I could consider.”

To recap the day, we’ve captured a few of the biggest takeaways below.

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From Forensic Analysis to Taco Thursday: My Experience as a Promega Intern

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Kali Denis, an intern in our scientific applications group. You’ll find her bio at the end of the article.

A few months ago, I stood in front of my freezer at home, holding a bag with a tube full of gum that I chewed. The freezer was overflowing, as we had just done our weekly grocery shopping, so I ended up stuffing the bag next to some frozen fish sticks. I wondered how long it would take for one of my roommates to question just exactly what this gross-looking bag was doing in our freezer. I doubt they would have ever guessed that it was for a project at my internship!

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Tidying Up With Promega R&D: Spectrometer From Space?

Later this year, Promega will open a new R&D building with more than twice the current amount of lab space available on the Madison campus. While preparing to move to the new building, R&D scientists are cleaning out decades of scientific history housed in some of the older labs. Meagan Eggers, Promega Strategic Information Partner, is collaborating with the research groups to document and preserve noteworthy artifacts unearthed in the Research & Development Center. Over the next few months, we’ll showcase some of the most interesting things we find.

Spectrometer – 1960s-2000

Promega research scientists began investigating bioluminescent proteins in the early 1990s. One of the most important tools in this research was the spectrometer pictured above, which was used to measure the emission spectra of many different organisms. Before it arrived at Promega, however, this spectrometer began in the space program.

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