A Pathologist on the Scientific Frontlines of COVID-19
Coinciding with the urgent need for laboratory findings has been a slow-down and readjustment of life on the outside
Shari Price, PhD, DABT likes to think of the drug programs she works on as giant Lego structures with thousands of moving parts. Her lab’s piece involves probing human and animal tissue to look for any red flags that could be problematic for patients—such as an antibody therapy that binds to tissues or cell types that it shouldn’t.
The pathologists at Charles River’s site in Frederick, Maryland do dozens of these studies a year without blinking, because they are really good at what they do and because the world isn’t usually watching.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that dynamic. The Frederick site is now connected to their work like never before, collaborating hand in hand with clients and juggling multiple COVID-19 drug projects under incredibly tight deadlines in laboratory settings that demand constant social distancing. The disease target has a face and a name. Its victims are their friends and neighbors. The stakes are high and they are pushing hard to find therapeutic solutions for a virus that is killing thousands daily.
For Shari, there is no escaping the numbers of the newly-infected and recently died that get updated every day by epidemiologists. Stories and photos are everywhere—on social media, television screens and newspapers—chronicling the toll the pandemic has taken on communities and families. In the lab, though, it is business as usual. “Everybody kind of shifts around and does what they need to do,” says Shari. “One of the things that is nice about [our team] is that there has always been a can-do attitude. If we have to rearrange things to get something done for somebody, that's fine. We'll get it done."
Shari is a cell and molecular biologist by training. She spent a number of years at a Florida biotech studying monoclonal antibodies and soluble single chain-T-cell receptors, specifically ones targeting cancer, before joining Charles River 16 years ago. Shari was the kid who loved to collect rocks, leaves and lizards, who grew up reading the encyclopedias, but when she headed for college she initially thought about becoming a doctor. That changed when she got a job as a lab tech in a plant molecular biology lab. When she walked into the lab that first day, and picked up her tools, “it was like walking into your house and realizing you are home.” She dropped pre-med that day.
Shari’s focus now is on immunohistochemistry to aid in safety assessment of monoclonal antibodies and antibody derivatives as well as other protein-based, cell-based, or small molecule therapeutics. Tests that measure tissue cross-reactivity in human and animal tissues—probing reactions between an antibody and on- or off-target binding in tissue that might induce an immune response or other adverse effect—are standard in the preclinical testing of therapeutic antibodies, including a number of the drugs being evaluated as COVID-19 treatments. The pathology involves immunohistochemistry, a meticulous and painstaking art that involves staining cells and tissues as a way of finding off-target binding of the antibodies or antibody-based therapeutics. The work is an important safety step before a drug can be given to humans.
Coinciding with the urgency being felt by laboratories like Shari’s has been a slow-down and readjustment of life on the outside. Shari, a single mother, has two daughters, ages 22 and 17, who are now taking their college and high school classes online at home. The workout group Shari runs at Frederick stopped meeting in person and now meets by Skype, and she has begun working remotely fairly regularly. Since April 1, Maryland residents have been under a stay-at-home-order.
Balancing these work-life issues has been a challenge at times, Shari admits. “I guess the one thing that was a big surprise to me was— I'm going to use the term in normal times—I would take a work-from- home day if I really needed to focus hard on something, if I had something that I needed to write, or a big pile of slides that I needed to get through or whatever,” says Shari. “But now, with the kids here, somebody's coming and going, somebody has a question, the dog wants to go outside, I find it a little harder to focus. A nice set of noise-canceling ear buds and good music are a good remedy. ”
This is the first in a series of profiles of Charles River scientists who are working on COVID-19. Tune in next week to hear about Paul Winship, a chemist in Early Discovery, who led a team that contributed open-source ideas for COVID-19 vaccine candidates.