In a typical year, the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital is accustomed to dealing with astounding volume, processing about 13 million clinical lab tests. Yet when COVID-19 testing became a crucial aspect of care during the pandemic, the department’s microbiology lab saw the pace quickening and called in reinforcements. 

In addition to processing 400 to 600 in-house COVID-19 tests per day, the lab also conserves capacity by sending as many as 100 samples across the river to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for testing daily. Nine researchers from four Mass General research labs were brought in for a month to help prepare these samples for shipment and to streamline the process.

“Collectively the research group sent more than 2,000 specimens to the Broad Institute without a single issue and this provided our laboratory some much-needed breathing room to help improve our workflows,” says Anand Dighe, MD, PhD, director of Mass General's Core Laboratory. “The process that the research team set up and perfected will serve us well in the future as Mass General opens up and we start testing even larger numbers of patients.”

Though these researchers are used to working in labs, they say the work itself was quite different from their normal roles. Fadi Najm, PhD, MBA, a research fellow studying cancer epigenetics in the lab of Bradley E. Bernstein, MD, PhD, performs fundamental research. “It was eye-opening to see how clinical labs operate,” he says. “Our focus was on working as a unit, streamlining the protocol to batch, prepare and label the samples to get them to the Broad Institute as quickly as possible.”

For Hannah Weisman, a research technician in the molecular pathology lab of Mario Suva, MD, PhD, the process was a great learning opportunity. “Working in a clinical lab, it was interesting to work with enhanced precautions, and to learn to process these samples quickly but carefully.”

Jackie Eversley, technical director of the Microbiology Department, says the nine researchers transitioned smoothly into their temporary roles. In addition to aliquoting, or taking a portion, of the original sample to be sent out, they recapped 5,000 samples in a single week so they could be properly stored for potential additional testing. “They’re an incredible group of individuals,” Eversley says. “Even though so much was going on, we all just buckled down.”

As for this new team that was thrown together, “It was nice to work with people I might not have otherwise,” says Weisman. “And it’s been a great feeling to make a meaningful contribution.”