Since its invention in 1983, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has become a fundamental technology in life science laboratories across the world. Much of the technological innovation is driven by quantitative PCR and digital PCR (1); however, endpoint PCR remains a workhorse technology for applications such as gene cloning, mutagenesis and detection of microbial pathogens. Variations on the basic endpoint PCR method—for example, the use of multiplexed, fluorescently labeled primers followed by capillary electrophoresis to analyze the amplified DNA fragments—are popular in forensic DNA analysis and cell line authentication.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an urgent need for PCR-based diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2. Most of these diagnostic tests use real-time, reverse-transcription quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR). However, RT-qPCR can be challenging for routine use in developing countries and in laboratories with limited access to real-time PCR thermal cyclers. A recent study described an endpoint PCR method for SARS-CoV-2 detection to address these limitations (2).
The past year has been a challenge. Amidst the pandemic, we’re thankful for the tireless work of our dedicated employees. With their support, we have continuously stayed engaged and prepared during all stages of the COVID-19 pandemic so that we can serve our customers at the highest levels.
How We Got Here
The persistent work by our teams has made a great impact on the support we can provide for scientists and our community during the pandemic. From scaling up manufacturing to investing in new automation, every effort has helped.
Promega has a long history of manufacturing reagents, assays, and benchtop instruments for both researching and testing viruses. When the pandemic began in 2020, we responded quickly and efficiently to unprecedented demands. In the past year, we experienced an approximately 10-fold increase in demand for finished catalog and custom products for COVID-19 testing. In response to these demands, we increased production lines. One year ago, we ran one shift five days per week. Currently, we run three shifts seven days per week. This change has allowed 50 different Promega products to support SARS-CoV-2 testing globally in hospitals, clinical diagnostic laboratories, and molecular diagnostic manufacturers. Additionally, our clinical diagnostics materials make up about 2/3 of COVID-19 PCR tests on the global market today. Since January 2020, Promega has supplied enough reagents to enable testing an estimated 700 million samples for SARS-CoV-2 worldwide.
Developments and Advances
Promega products are used in viral and vaccine research. This year, our technologies have been leveraged for virtually every step of pandemic response from understanding SARS-CoV-2 to testing to research studies looking at vaccine response.
We are extremely grateful for our employees. In the past year, we hired over 100 people and still have positions open today. While welcoming newcomers, this challenging year also reinforced the importance of our collaborative culture. Relationships at Promega have been built over multiple years. The long history of our teams allows us to stay coordinated while prioritizing product distribution to customers across the globe. It also leads to effective communication with colleagues and vendors. Those leading our manufacturing operations team, for example, have an average tenure of 15 years. Their history in collaborating through challenging situations helps them quickly focus where needed most.
Our 600 on-site employees support product manufacturing, quality, and R&D. They do it all while remaining COVID-conscious by social distancing, wearing masks, working split shifts, and restricting movement between buildings. While we continue to practice physical safety precautions, we also prioritize our employees’ mental health and wellness. Promega provides a variety of wellness resources including phone and video mental health sessions, virtual fitness and nutrition classes, and stress and anxiety tools.
What’s to Come
While we acknowledge that the COVID-19 is not over, we are proud of the support we have been able to provide to customers working both on pandemic research and critical research not related to COVID-19. Our policies of long-term planning and investing in the future has allowed us to respond quickly and creatively and learn from the experience.
This blog is written by guest blogger, Heather Tomlinson, Director of Clinical Diagnostics at Promega.
Finding safe and effective treatments for human diseases takes time. Medication and diagnostic tests can take decades to discover, develop and prove safe and effective. In the United States, the FDA stands as the gold-standard gatekeeper to ensure that treatments and tests are reliable and safe. The time we wait in review and clearance means less risk of ineffective or unsafe treatments.
And yet, in a pandemic, we are behind before we even start the race to develop diagnostic tests, so critical for understanding how an infectious disease is spreading. That is when processes like the FDA’s fast track of Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) are critical. Such authorization allows scientists and clinicians to be nimble and provide the best possible test protocol as quickly as possible, with the understanding that these protocols will continue to be evaluated and improved as new information becomes available. The EUA focuses resources and accelerates reviews that keep science at the fore and gets us our best chance at staying safe and healing.
For scientists working around the clock, the FDA’s EUA process is ready to review and respond. Getting an EUA gives clinical labs a very specific and tested resource to guide them to the tools and tests to use in a crisis.
Typically the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will develop the first test or protocol that receives FDA EUA in response to a crisis like a pandemic. For COVID-19 the CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel received FDA EUA clearance in early February. This is the test protocol used by the public health labs that work with the CDC and test manufacturers around the world.
Throughout a crisis such as the current pandemic, scientists continually work to improve the testing protocols and add options to the EUA protocols. This enables more flexibility in the test protocols. Promega is fortunate to play a part of the CDC EUA equation for diagnostic testing. Our GoTaq® Probe 1-Step PRT-qPCR System is one of a few approved options for master mixes in the CDC qPCR diagnostic test, and now our medium-throughput Maxwell 48 Instrument and Maxwell Viral Total Nucleic Acid Purification Kit have been added to the CDC protocol as an option for the RNA isolation step as well. These additions to the CDC EUA means that laboratories have more resources at their disposal for the diagnostic testing which is so critical to effective pandemic response.
The Emergency Use Authorization provides the FDA guidance to strengthen our nation’s public health during emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. The EUA allows continual improvement of an authorized protocol through the collaborative efforts scientists in all academia, government and industry to identify and qualify the most reliable technologies and systems, giving labs more flexibility as new products are added as options.
Dr. Tomlinson is the Director for the Global Clinical Diagnostics Strategic Business Unit at Promega Corporation with over 15 years of experience in clinical diagnostic test development. She is responsible for leading the team that drives strategy in the clinical market for Promega. Her background is in infectious disease diagnostic testing, with a focus on HIV drug resistance and evolution. Her recent work has been in oncology companion diagnostic test development. Heather has is an accomplished international presenter, delivering conference presentations in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Understanding how disease states arise from genetic variants is important for understanding disease resistance and progression. What can complicate our understanding of disease development is when two people have the same genetic variant, but only one has the disease. To investigate what might be happening with ferrochelatase (FECH) variant alleles that result in erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), scientists used next-generation sequencing (NGS) along with RNA analysis and DNA methylation testing to assess the FECH locus in 72 individuals from 24 unrelated families with EPP.
What is FECH and its relationship to EPP?
FECH is the gene for ferrochelatase, the last enzyme in the pathway that synthesizes heme. The inherited metabolic disorder, EPP, is caused when the activity of FECH is reduced to less than a third of normal levels thus, increasing the levels of protoporphyrin (PPIX) without metal in erythrocytes. The consequences of the low-metal PPIX include severe phototoxic skin reactions and hepatic injury due to PPIX accumulation in the liver.
How does FECH expression affect EPP?
The EPP disease state is not simply the lack of two functional FECH genes. Disease occurs with a hypomorphic allele, mutations in FECH that reduce its function, in trans to a null FECH allele. Researchers focused on three common variants called the GTC haplotype that are associated with expression quantitative trait loci (eQTL) that reduce FECH activity. Interestingly, these three variants have been found in trans, but researchers wanted to learn if there were individuals who were homozygous for the GTC allele and how EPP manifested for them.
We have all been hearing a lot about RT-PCR, rRT-PCR and RT-qPCR lately, and for good reason. Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) is the technique used in by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to test for COVID-19. Real-time RT-PCR, or quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR)*, is a specialized PCR technique that visualizes the amplification of the target sequence as it happens (in real-time) and allows you to measure the amount of starting target material in your reaction. You can read more about the basics of this technique, and watch a webinar here. For more about RT-PCR for COVID-19 testing, read this blog.
Both qPCR and RT-qPCR are powerful tools for scientists to have at their disposal. These fundamental techniques are used to study biological processes in a wide range of areas. Over the decades, Promega has supported researchers with RT-qPCR and qPCR reagents and systems to study everything from diseases like COVID-19 and cancer to viruses in elephants and the circadian rhythm of krill.
The three winners of the 2019 Real-Time PCR Grants have been hard at work in the six months since receiving their grants. Each winner was eligible to receive up to $10,000 in free PCR reagents as well as the opportunity to collaborate with our knowledgeable technical service and training teams.
Abbeah Navasca is a plant pathology researcher with the Tagum Agricultural Development Company, Inc. (TADECO*, Philippines). She is developing treatments for viral infections that affect one of Philippines’ largest and most valuable agricultural exports: bananas. As a result of the qPCR grant, she and two of her colleagues were able to participate in sample preparation and analysis workshops with Promega Technical Services experts in Singapore. During her visit, the team worked through strategies for plant sample preparation and amplified those samples with the GoTaq® 1-Step RT-qPCR System. We had a chance to ask her more before she headed back to her lab.
The three 2019 Real-Time PCR Grant Winners have been hard at work in the six months since winning their grants. Each winner was eligible to receive up to $10,000 in free PCR reagents as well as the opportunity to collaborate with our knowledgeable technical service and training teams.
One of the 2019 winners, Alberto Biscontin (University of Padova, Italy), performs research in the fields of Neurogenetics and Chronobiology. He is looking to shed greater light on the circadian rhythms of the Antarctic krill. Alberto published his most recent analysis in Nature and GoTaq® qPCR Master Mix helped him validate expression of genes for his study.
His qPCR data showed support for internal mechanisms that not only support daily living but also clarified the overwintering process of the krill. Now that Alberto has sized up some zooplankton, we asked him to share a little more about himself and his research:
Q: How long have you been a researcher? A: I have been a researcher since 2012.
Q: How did you decide to research Antarctic krill? A: In 2013, I had the opportunity to join the international Antarctic research program PolarTime. [It] brought together eight research groups with different scientific expertise to study seasonal and daily rhythms in the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba.
Q: When you are not busy at the bench, what do you like to do? A: Traveling. I love strolling through open-air markets.
Q: Are there any tips or tricks you have learned that make your job easier? A: You can easily switch from a classic RT-PCR protocol to a cheaper and faster One-step protocol using the same primers and temperatures.
Q: What comes next? A: I would like to characterize the clock machinery of other polar organisms to understand whether high latitude clocks have developed similar strategies to cope with [the] polar environment. Moreover, a better understanding of marine circadian clocks could help to shed light on the evolution of the animal circadian machinery.
You can find Alberto’s most recent publication in Nature Scientific Reports. The 2020 Real-Time PCR Grant will be coming soon. For more information on the 2019 winners and information on the 2023 Grant, visit the Real-Time Grant web page. Be sure to follow us on social media for the most up-to-date information regarding the 2020 Grant, including application deadlines and winner notifications!
Here at Promega we receive some interesting requests…
Take the case of Virginia Riddle Pearson, elephant scientist. Three years ago we received an email from Pearson requesting a donation of GoTaq G2 Taq polymerase to take with her to Africa for her field work on elephant herpesvirus. Working out of her portable field lab (a tent) in South Africa and Botswana, she needed a polymerase she could count on to perform reliably after being transported for several days (on her lap) at room temperature. Through the joint effort of her regional sales representative in New Jersey/Pennsylvania (Pearson’s lab was based out of Princeton University at the time) and our Genomics product marketing team, she received the G2 Taq she needed to take to Africa. There she was able to conduct her experiments, leading to productive results and the opportunity to continue pursuing her work. Continue reading “Of Elephant Research and Wildlife Crime – Molecular Tools that Matter”
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