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New Molecular Lab Means Faster Test Results

In-house DNA testing benefits patients, doctors

MaryBeth DiDonna

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Molecular laboratories perform DNA testing of specimens for a wide range of diagnostic purposes. Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is tasked with processing thousands of specimens every year—however, until recently, these specimens were sent elsewhere for testing, which meant a longer wait period for results. 

Lary Koval, SM (ASCP) MBA, CHS system administrative director, laboratory medicine for Conemaugh Health System, says that the idea for a new molecular lab came when staff expressed frustration that it was taking so long for doctors and patients to get results. Conemaugh then reached out to its employees to ask what kinds of testing they would like to see done in-house, in order to prevent patients from experiencing an angst-filled waiting period. 

“[The suggestion for] the molecular lab came from one oncologist who wasn’t happy with extended turnaround times from our reference testing,” says Koval, describing how it previously took anywhere from seven to 10 days for results to come back. “He was thinking that, for an organization our size, we should have testing on campus so we could have faster turnaround time.”

Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center molecular labRather than sending DNA specimens out for testing, Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center's new molecular lab can now test samples in-house, meaning a faster turnaround time for doctors and their patients.CREDIT: CONEMAUGH HEALTH SYSTEM

The $1.7 million project, funded by LifePoint Health, opened on Sept. 24, 2019, after about three years of development. Construction on the lab started earlier this year. Stengel Hill Architecture of Louisville, Kentucky, worked on the project. 

Upgraded equipment 

Conemaugh teamed up with Roche Diagnostics as well as the Mayo Clinic to design and organize the new lab. 

“We partnered with Roche Diagnostics. When they first came to meet us to design a molecular lab, we were working with Roche on our histology side so we reached out to them for their expertise,” says Koval. “They brought in some design engineers, walked the space, helped us do an initial plan.”

One of the centerpieces of the new lab facility is Roche’s Cobas 6800, an automated system for sample preparation and real-time polymerase chain reaction. It’s used to run testing for diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B and C, Chlamydia, and Gonorrhea. In the old facility, molecular testing had to be done throughout three separate rooms so as not to contaminate the sample. Now, in the new lab, everything is done within one system. 

Molecular lab at Conemaugh Memorial Medical CenterNew equipment in the molecular lab at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center.CREDIT: CONEMAUGH HEALTH SYSTEM

The new lab also features upgraded furnishings. 

“We asked for all stainless steel countertops, because in a molecular lab you want to keep things clean and pristine—wiping things down with bleach is hard on surfaces,” says Koval. “We were lucky enough to get all stainless steel countertops so we don’t have issues with residue or changing colors on work surfaces.”

What’s next?

For the time being, Conemaugh’s new molecular lab is concentrating on performing DNA testing for oncologic, infection control, and coagulation tests. However, says Koval, this is just Phase 1, as the team has its eye on next-gen sequencing. 

“In order to prep ourselves for this, our AP reference testing is sent to Mayo Medical Labs,” says Koval, adding that the Conemaugh team behind the design of the molecular lab took a trip to the Mayo Clinic Laboratories in Rochester, Minnesota, to get an idea of what Conemaugh’s new testing platform ought to look like. 

“We met with Mayo’s experts to say, ‘Is this a good first step when it comes to molecular testing?’ They felt very confident that this was doable.” 

Koval also says that his team visited a sister lab in Marquette, Michigan, to see how those labs were set up and to get inspiration for the Conemaugh lab. 

He stresses that it’s vital for lab design teams to do their research before starting the build process, and that they should ask for assistance when necessary.

“If you don’t have expertise in this, reach out to somebody who does,” he says. “Partner with somebody who has that expertise to help you along the way.”