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Gray Matter Podcast | Conversation with Kristine Werking and Hillary Wood: Infectious Disease Diagnostics and COVID-19

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MRIGlobal’s Gray Matter podcast digs in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges, and why this work matters in your life.

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Transcript – Conversation with Kristine Werking and Hillary Wood: Infectious Disease Diagnostics and COVID-19

INTRO: Dean Gray — I’m Dean Gray, chief operating officer at MRIGlobal. And this is Gray Matter, the podcast, where we dig in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges and why this work matters in your life.

Dean Gray — Welcome, everyone, I’m Dean Gray. On this episode of Gray Matter, we’re going to discuss innovations in disease diagnostics. We’ll start with a look back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss some of the research breakthroughs that occurred that ultimately will help us prepare for the next event. My guests are two colleagues who are experts in this area of research, Christine Werking and Hillary Wood. These two were scientists who were leading teams, they were part of teams across the institute involved in MRIGlobal’s National and Community Response. And we’ve got a lot to talk about in that area, and so let’s start off with a quick introduction. So, Christine, would you mind introducing yourself, please?

Christine Werking — Yes, thank you, Dean. Christine Werking, I am our director of the portfolio for Disease Diagnostics. And I’ve been with the company 25 years with MRIGlobal and have been through quite a few different moments in time where we needed to rise to the occasion and respond for the benefit of public health and for national security. So honored to be here. Thank you, Dean.

Dean Gray — All right, Hillary.

Hillary Wood — I’m Hillary and I’m a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. I joined our company about five years ago. Most of my experience was in the development of diagnostic assays for mycobacteria species. And when I joined the company, we were working on (…) infectious disease assay development, mostly for things like tropical diseases and fevers of unknown origin, and then shortly after that, we transitioned our capability to Kansas City and freshly built some laboratories, which we referred to as our Diagnostic Center of Excellence. And we also commissioned some clinical laboratories.

Dean Gray — All right. Very good. That’s a great background look, we’ve known each other for several years and we were all working together, you know, and definitely through this. I just want to just in your minds go back to right around March 2020, and I, I bring up around March 2020 roughly because that event, the time frame around that is kind of like a 9/11 event when I think back on it now. It was pre-lockdown, we knew there were things going on. Our country was going to be changing. Christine you and I were traveling, we were out in Denver at the time for a board meeting, and I remember that morning we had a Reddit, “ask me anything”, Gene Olinger or Lolly Gardner were were part of that as well, and in a really big way did a great job on that But this public outreach was just starting and we had this staff meeting that was going to be a staff awards meeting for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And we were coming right from this phone call and we were going over to that event in Denver.

And it was this weird scenario of like culturally people holding out their hands and then pulling it back and going like, “oh wait, we don’t shake hands anymore.” And I was like, I remember thinking at that point in time going, yeah is pretty absurd. Like, what? What are we? Of course I don’t want to shake your hand, it’s probably filthy and like, you know, why did we ever do that to begin with. But there was some other bizarre like anthropological weirdness that was going on with greetings where people were starting to, “oh, do we shoe bump or do we, you know, do elbow?” All of which like – no, thanks. Like I want any part. Nobody wants to shoe bump. You remember that? It was just it was bizarre, we were rethinking every social norm, you know, during that time frame. And I just it struck me then, you know, and I was talking with my wife, Katie, you know, during kind of a break in that. And I remember asking her, “hey look, when you go to the store, don’t hoard anything. But you might want to pick up a couple extra things of this and this and this and this.” And I remember her asking “why what’s going on?” And I’m like, “well, I don’t know. I think we might be at home for a little while, from what I can tell, from talking with people around here. And we might be just kind of hanging out, hanging out a little bit,” and it was going to be something different than we’d experienced before, you know.

So I’d like to hear from both of you, kind of like go back to that time frame. You know, it seems like so long ago, just a couple of years, you know, what was it like for you? Christine, do you want to start?

Christine Werking — Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. So I think about this quite a bit, actually, both personally and at work, because that time was it was it was surreal. And in the moment, certainly professionally, we knew that what we were what we what our response would need to be and what our impact could be in the disease diagnostic space. So we knew it. We knew we were ready. We had, as Hillary mentioned, we had just opened our laboratories, actually cut the ribbons in November of 2019, literally cut the ribbon to open up the laboratory. I’ll go back even a little bit further. So around the December time frame, I can recall starting to, you know, starting to hear some news reports, starting to hear about some events that seemed so far away for us here in the U.S. And, you know, our scientists in our world renowned virologists and our scientists knew that this was going to be something big. But really, none of us really knew exactly to what extent. We started we started having conference calls with with public health agencies that were were really tracking and looking. And so I feel like there was a it was surreal.

It feels like the March shutdown happened suddenly. But then also looking back, it feels like it was a very slow runway, just based on what we do professionally and how we we tracked. I’m incredibly grateful that we were ready. And I feel like what was amazing for me is to see our team of people just do what it took to get the job done. And so while the world was experiencing a pandemic and the world was experiencing something that hadn’t happened in a hundred years, everybody rose to the occasion. And that’s what I remember about our workforce, is everybody was going through the pandemic personally. Everybody was going through the grocery stores and doing what they needed to do to to get their families secure and they were also putting in double-triple time at work because we knew we had to make a difference. And so that was just a really incredibly powerful time, I think, just to and humbling and an honor to be a part of it. So, that’s what I remember.

Dean Gray — Yeah. Well, well said too about the, you know, people were taking care of their, their personal lives, their families, and then also this immense professional responsibility of this is what MRIGlobal exists to do, which is respond in these really difficult situations. And we’ve learned from the response from the Ebola epidemic and the coming together and helping out in West Africa. And after that and around that same time and MERS and SARS-CoV-1 and efforts that we’d had around the world in that area. Yeah, absolutely. Hillary, what do you remember from that time? You know?

Hillary Wood — Yeah, I guess I could go back a little further as well. And I feel like probably it was maybe January time frame where I started hearing about like these closed door conversations with the White House and, you know, other government agencies that are responsible for helping us respond to these events. And I think some scientists were questioning like how serious is it? And others were realizing that, you know, we are accountable for responding to these events. And, you know, how are we going to manage double-time or getting our hands on the right materials to respond to this? So, I mean, I can go back to the days in the lab when we had some commercial clients that were prepared and had good ideas for how to get products out there to market quickly to allow us to respond to this. And so I think the lab was positioned at the right time with enough scientists that had some, you know, personal accountability for responding that really like rolled up their sleeves, got in the lab and did what needed to be done to get products to market.

Dean Gray — Yeah, you knew what to do. You know, we were already positioned really well with the right capabilities in the laboratory capabilities, the staff and the partnerships in the government, as well as the commercial space. And you were on the front lines of all of that? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that was you were working, I don’t know when you weren’t working at that time. You know, that was one of those where you were on a team and leading teams that were almost around the clock.

Hillary Wood — Yeah, it definitely was around the clock.

Dean Gray — Yeah. And something to look back on with that is, is so I’ve been at MRIGlobal for 20 years and there I can’t think of another occasion when we were more a part of the Kansas City community than the early and mid stages of the pandemic. You know, even though that we’ve been there since, you know, our founding in 1944, it was really it seemed to me anyway. And this history, it was it was that event where, you know, I mentioned the Reddit “Ask Me Anything.” But following that, almost immediately there were a bunch of panel sessions that we ended up going to you know, we went to Union Station, we held one at MRIGlobal, we went to some other locations. Gene Olinger came in and Lolly came in, and we had other people that were part of this as well. And just talking to business owners around the community and making an effort at that point in time, which was again, kind of a first, we were separating politics from science and just saying, just going to think about the science.

We’re not thinking about the politics on this at all. That’s your business. Our business is the science. And so here are our recommendations for a biosafety plan, your recommendations if you’re going to send people home. Then it turned into here our recommendations for bringing students and your workforce back to the office, even temporarily. And that community outreach, I think, really helped to cement out the impact of MRIGlobal, where we you know, we’re used to doing things can globally or at least nationally. This really brought it down into the community space, too. Yeah, you both were really, really big, big part of that. Yeah. You know, during that time too when let’s get to our customers a little bit because they were adjusting as well. I mean, I don’t remember when we’d had to really be that concerned about supply chain in the laboratory before. Right. Eyes really opened wide with that, which is oh my gosh, are we going to have enough Tyvek? You know, are we what about pipette tips, you know, buckle swabs every all of these other things that, you know, that we’d kind of taken for granted. And I think our customers were going through that, too. But you think of like, what were we hearing at that point in time? How were our customers starting to adjust and what were some of the things that they were asking us really for urgent help on? Christine, do you want to chime in on that one?

Christine Werking — Sure. So we had actually a wide range of customers. And during this time, you know, we were able to deepen relationships with with them. But also we were able to work with new customers that were starting to do the same things with their technology. So previously the companies that would focus were focused in women’s health or other areas of infectious disease or diagnostic technologies. Also were pivoting to to be a part of helping to, to further the technologies and advance what’s available for the public. And so there was we were able to work with them. And I think their ask at that point was help us navigate this. So everything was an unknown.

You know, it’s been two years. We were all pretty used to operating in a pandemic world, but back then it was not to be taken for granted. We didn’t know how long folks would be at home. The point of need, point of care, diagnostics, or the antigen test that we have available that anybody can pick up in any pharmacy seemed like getting to the moon at that time. So really the community coming together, putting their business focus together to figure out how to advance that technology as fast as we needed to to get everybody back to what what normal would be.
And so I think our customers were asking for help, how to get there, how to navigate the everchanging regulatory world. Everything was was definitely an unknown. And I think any time we could bring clarity to what would help them with their product and help them advance their technology with the highest quality, but on the timeline it needed to be on, and that was really the focus.

Dean Gray — What a boost for a point of care diagnostics too. What we have now versus just compared to two years ago? Yeah, yeah. Big, big boost. You know, you were being in the laboratory a lot too Hillary and then working with other staff at that time. How do you think folks balanced again, the personal aspects of taking care of themselves, taking care of the family, and then also being part of such important, impactful work where our customers are really relying on us both commercial and in the United States government.

Hillary Wood — That’s a good question. I think most of the scientists were excited to respond to the pandemic. It’s hard to say, like, you know, you’re excited to, you know, develop diagnostics for an infectious disease that was at the time, you know, leading to a high number of deaths and, you know, severe illness. But I think people were able to balance that, I guess, commitment to work pretty well because the work that you were doing was meaningful and you knew that you were helping get products to market so that diagnostics are accessible. I mean, before this, there’s nothing, there is no precedent. The only thing that you could say there is is at-home pregnancy tests.

But when you feel ill, there’s not a solution to say, hey, I think I have strep throat, I’m going to go test it and, you know, test myself and call my doctor and ask for some antibiotics. Like this was a very different time where people realized that to try to slow down the progression of a respiratory illness, that we had to get creative and we had to work hard and we had to work fast to be able to get products out there. So I think that most people were working together very well and collectively and you know, even though it was long days and hard days, I think people had a great attitude and, you know, became very close. The time I spent in the lab with my team doing patient testing, I think, you know, people felt like a family. And sometimes in corporate lingo, you know, a family environment is frowned upon. But for us, I think that’s how we got through it. Everyone was thinking about, you know, feeding each other to get through the day and, you know, simple things like taking the trash out, is that going to help you make your day better? So I really think that people focused on doing their job and something that they’ve studied many years to do. And, you know, the rest of it came second.

Dean Gray — Yeah. You brought up a term excitement and I totally agree where there was, you know, certainly like frustration, anxiety, you know, concern in a big way and really kind of this fear of the unknown. But also that’s why we’re scientists, you know, and getting that phone call from a customer. Tell me this. Okay. Tell me if this doesn’t give you goose bumps when I already know it will. Right. Okay. You get a, you get a phone call from a customer and they say “we have a really big problem to solve and we’re not sure how we’re going to do it. So we thought we would call you.” Like, come on. Like that’s what we live for, right? I mean, that’s that’s what we want to be doing. And this was kind of this was like that time and it drove, you know, as we get into thinking about the scientific breakthroughs that came from here, you know, this kind of situation and the the innovation that was needed, I think you touched on those. I mean, now twice with the with the point of need, kind of a point of care diagnostics that now we’re almost taking for granted that did not exist there. Just just even 12 months ago, 18 months ago, which is really incredible. Yeah, it’s nice to know. Everybody had a part to play in that too, right? Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. So let’s think about what’s next a little bit. I want to know, like from your perspectives back to this area of a scientific, scientific developments, breakthrough science that kind of came from this. And how does this past work set our future customers up for success in working for us? Like what have we gained now over the last couple of years that even propels us further to be of use to our customers and to our country? Christine, what do you what do you think about that?

Christine Werking — So I think certainly in the area of diagnostics in a lot of what we do, we learned how to come together in come together in very challenging times. We learned how to navigate diverse teams cross-locationally and we learned how to navigate the unknown. And so, I mean, we will we were ready. And now we have the confidence to know that we will always be ready. So when there is something, when there is the next challenge, when there is some unknown to rise, to rise up to and respond together, I’m 100% confident we will. And so I think we learned that confidence. We learned that we have the wherewithal and the community to do so. Me personally, I learned a lot as a leader through this. So on a dime we had people who had to be in the lab almost all day, every day. And then we had people that we we told to go home. And so navigating on a dime, a split workforce, offsite workforce, pandemic, personal challenges and the scientific challenges we were going through. I learned a lot as a leader how to be more in tune with people, with our people, and just how to be there for the teams and and how to do better. So that’s that’s something that I think collectively would also also sets us up for success for the next unknown.

Dean Gray — Yeah. It’s easy to lead when times are good. Yeah. When times are trying then that really you get forged in a different shape through that. Yeah. I don’t know what sticks in your mind Hillary in that time.

Hillary Wood — Well, there were a lot of logistical challenges to overcome and executing, you know, high throughput testing. So we did offer service to the community where we were screening hundreds of patients a day. And so to think through all of those logistics of being able to go from a workforce that was used to developing products and completing analytical studies, to kind of shifting the focus to providing a testing service. So I think that there’s a – like logistics stands out in my mind in a lot of ways, some of it just being able to respond and do that high throughput testing.

But also I think a lot of the scientists that traditionally are in that space learned how to get through the FDA. And I think we’ll see that paying off in the long run because we’ll be able to get products to market a lot faster for the next, you know, infectious disease. I think that we’ve also started to get society to understand the importance of being proactive and thinking about, you know, how are we going to detect the unknown, you know, infectious agent. So I feel like getting through some of these discussions of being able to prove that a product works have been helpful. But also I think it’ll pay off in allowing us to get to the point where we have products that are helping us identify the next infectious agent.

Dean Gray — Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And we can’t just over a period, a short period of time forget just two years ago where we were. You know, and in some cases it feels like, wait a minute, are we forgetting already? As if (…) you know, are we already forgetting a little bit? One more thing I want to throw in with this is that during this entire time that we’re talking about, we were also going through a complete corporate organizational structure change at the institute, too, as part of our strategy. And we had these discussions during the exactly the same time, which were do we take our foot off the gas or we do we utilize this as an opportunity and we just keep our foot on the gas and we just keep going with all of it all at the same time, you know, going through and and trying to get our structural changes optimized. And we opted, of course, to keep our foot on the gas and keep going.

And, you know, I look back on that time and think, I know it was the right decision, but it was also a really hard decision for a lot of people. Because it also introduced even more change and uncertainty at a time when we were going through a lot of change and uncertainty. And I remember asking myself as part of the executive team or I was just like, when are we going to know when too much change is happening at once? How much is enough in keeping people sharp and we can still be on our game and innovating and doing what we need to do, versus how much is that tipping point of being too much?

You know, and I feel like at some points we may have just just approached it, maybe, you know, and I don’t know. It’s interesting to look back on it now where we are right now and really in a stronger position that we’ve come out of all of this. And I agree, we’re just really well positioned with all of our customers in the government and commercial space, to respond even better when the next when the next crisis arises.

So, Hillary, in terms of scientific breakthrough, like if you think of what is the one technology or laboratory capability that came out of this, that you feel like this is really unique and this is one thing I’m really excited about to be able to offer kind of in the future. We had to go through this again. Is there anything that pops out at you for that?

Hillary Wood — That’s a difficult question to answer. I think that we had to use existing technology to be able to get to where we are. So a lot of the like chemistry for these tests, the manufacturing processes, things like that were in place to allow us to respond to this pandemic. So I think that, you know, the next technology and what we really need to be thinking about is using next generation sequencing for detecting the unknown. I think we have, you know, all of the processes in place to do that, but maybe not full alignment with regulatory agencies on, you know, what that means and how we will prove that those, you know, products that are identifying the next, you know, pandemic or the next scary epidemic bug are safe. So I don’t, I don’t know that there’s like one breakthrough, you know, chemistry or product that is, you know, the answer.

Dean Gray — Yeah, yeah. One one thing that strikes me and maybe we will get John White in here at some point too. I remember talking with John about the vaccine development and there’s a whole you know, but what was interesting is not just the mRNA portion of that, it was the formulation science that went into it. One of the first programs that I worked on almost 20 years ago was in microencapsulation and no idea what that was when we started and we learned a lot in the process, but the formulation science that went into these new vaccines, that was really a way to stabilize in a manner that wasn’t available even a couple of years ago. And now, with the incorporation of more techniques that the tools of synthetic biology are opening up to us, seems like there is, there is room for very quick development in this space still. You know?

Like we’re on, it almost feels like we are kind of on the verge of, of something, something new and great in this area too. And I think that as a technology and I mentioned next gen sequencing and knowing our capabilities in that area, seeing those become more modular and more capable of being deployed in some other areas of where we’re working is that’s exciting. You know, and still being able to extend that laboratory capability where it’s needed in the world. Christine, what about you? Is there something that you’re really excited about that came out of this?

Christine Werking — Yes, I think a couple of things. I agree with you that it does feel like we’re on, we’re on the brink of something that could be collectively a really big advancement for public health. And, you know, together with just looking at where we where we were, I can remember early in the pandemic telling some of my family members, well, it’ll be years before there is a vaccine. Right. Because I didn’t know. And it’s that’s the typical pipeline. And yet we were, we were able to, as a global community, get vaccines out to the public in an absolutely unprecedented record time and safely and effectively. It made a huge, very huge difference.

And then I think the same thing happened on the diagnostic side. So you really have to have the diagnostics accelerated as well. So now, you know, two years ago, the idea of having a respiratory diagnostic test at home and cleared for at home use to where you can wake up and not have to just potentially spread the illness while you travel to the doctor, you travel to the pharmacy. You understand in that moment you can be prepared with those tests and have that on the spot. That just allows you to understand what therapeutics you will need. And so I think all together between diagnostics, therapeutics, the vaccines, we’ve made tremendous advancements in how to to develop products faster.

I think my hope is that as a, as a world community, both industry and government together through partnerships, through their their business plans, that we won’t lose the focus on infectious disease. And the impact from livelihood to health and, you know, preventing severe illness and death to the economy, into the impact that it’s had globally. I just I hope that we don’t lose that and that focus and that, there are a lot of companies that were that that gained a lot through this from the business perspective and were able to advance their their areas. And I hope that that industry remembers that and continues to advance our awareness and our preparedness going forward, because there will be there will be another one. And so we need to collectively just not lose that memory and be ready.

Dean Gray — Yeah, well said. Very good. Let’s ended with that. That was that’s a that’s a good note to end on. Christine, Hillary, thank you both for joining me today. And I love talking with you both about this. And thanks all for the work that you do. I appreciate it. I’m Dean Gray, if you’d like more information about MRIGlobal and our research, you’re welcome to visit us at our website at MRIGlobal.org. Thank you.

OUTRO: Dean Gray — Thanks for joining us on Gray Matter. I’m Dean Gray and you can find me at Dean Gray on LinkedIn. Or to learn more about our work visit, MRIGlobal.org.