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An Instrumental Approach to the Clinic

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  • Title: Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dartmouth Medical School
  • Education: PhD, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, 2006
  • Recommended by: Greg Tsongalis

There’s endless speculation about when the fruits of genomics and its related disciplines will make their mark in the clinic. But one thing is for certain: when the technology and research advances arrive that make it a trivial matter for a physician to prescribe a targeted therapeutic or for a clinician to easily and rapidly diagnose an illness based on gene or protein assays, for instance, it will be people like Claudine Bartels who made it possible.

Bartels, a postdoc who splits her time between the molecular pathology and translational research laboratories run by Greg Tsongalis at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, focuses on developing and improving instrumentation that will be a key element of moving pharmacogenomics into the consumer world. In particular, she's currently working with a platform from Luminex, Cepheid's GeneXpert tool, and the CellSearch System from Veridex. Bartels is collaborating with Luminex to develop a protein-based assay that uses cell extracts to profile tumors. One of her goals in working with the GeneXpert is to evaluate its use in different settings; right now, that involves a number of MRSA assays, she says.

The critical factor for any kind of platform, Bartels says, is "trying to figure out how to control for the assay." As in many types of tools, the controls that are satisfactory in the research setting may not be strict enough for use in the clinic. "It's really a topic of debate as to how that should be done," she says. "I'm trying to figure out a way to plot these controls so that when they run them [in a hospital] they don't have to do a lot of calculations to see that the controls are in the normal range." That work includes developing graphical ways to visualize the data so that a clinician can see at a glance whether a protocol ran smoothly.

Looking ahead

Great instrumentation doesn't mean much without great research to conduct with it, and part of Bartels' task is to test equipment in a variety of uses to evaluate how it stands up. For instance, she's planning to work on a small project in pancreatic cancer that would test out a cell enrichment technology that automatically scans blood for circulating tumor cells. While the tool has proven useful for other types of cancer, this will be a new assessment to see whether pancreatic cancer can be detected in a similar way.

If she were to wave a magic wand and snap a tool into existence, it would fit into that very theme: she'd like to see an ultra-fast cancer diagnostic that could tell a clinician right away exactly what was wrong with a patient. "I've seen so many people with cancer suffer through treatment after treatment after treatment," she says. A pharmacogenomics-based tool that would effectively stratify the patient into the best treatment program would be a really significant advance over the state of the art.

As far as her career goes, Bartels has some time to think about where her next steps will lead her -- but not much. Her postdoc should wrap up in mid-2009, she says, and after that she will have to decide whether her interest in teaching or in running a molecular or clinical lab will win out. Both paths hold great appeal, she says.

And the Nobel goes to...

If she were to get a phone call saying she’d won the Nobel prize, Bartels says, “I’d be making sure they had the right number!” But assuming it wasn’t an unfortunate mistake, she says she would like to be recognized for “some sort of research or technology … that really impacted quality of care or quality of life for an enormous population.”

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