Where the cutting-edge research happens: Diagnostic rooms busy at Newport LabsWORTHINGTON — The buzzer sounds, and a woman donned in a lab coat, safety glasses and latex gloves hurries to the door. Outside, a man hands her a specimen contained in a veterinarian’s rolled-up plastic glove. She looks at what appears to be a pig’s organ and sets it atop her cart among other samples dropped off by delivery drivers that morning.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — The buzzer sounds, and a woman donned in a lab coat, safety glasses and latex gloves hurries to the door. Outside, a man hands her a specimen contained in a veterinarian’s rolled-up plastic glove. She looks at what appears to be a pig’s organ and sets it atop her cart among other samples dropped off by delivery drivers that morning.
There are little vials containing nasal swabs from pigs that need to be diagnosed and a quart-sized plastic zipper bag half-filled with swine feces. After everything is recorded and labeled, it will be transported to various Newport Laboratories diagnostic rooms inside Prairie Holdings on the north edge of Worthington.
It’s turning into another typical day for the diagnostics lab, which receives blood and tissue samples, nasal swabs and other specimens from veterinarians and livestock research universities from across the country daily. It’s the job of researchers at Newport Labs to identify bacteria and viruses and diagnose diseases afflicting both swine and bovine.
Ben Hause is director of diagnostic services at Newport Labs, overseeing a crew of 15 people who conduct tests on samples sent to the lab.
A native of Northfield, Hause never pictured himself working in the livestock industry. He completed undergraduate studies from the University of Minnesota-Morris, and then earned his masters in medical chemistry with a focus on pharmaceuticals from the University of Minnesota. In January, he began work on his Ph.D. in biological sciences at South Dakota State University in Brookings.
Hause has worked at Newport Labs for the past five years. Before that, he spent five years with Cargill in the Twin Cities, working as a molecular biologist in the industrial fermentation division.
“I was looking for different opportunities and happened across a job opening down here as a research scientist with molecular biology experience,” he said, adding that the job appealed to him because of the cutting-edge research being performed at the Worthington facility.
Having its own labs to run tests and conduct research is crucial in developing custom-made vaccinations, which is where Newport Labs puts its primary focus. Still, in 2010, the company unveiled its first mass-marketed modified-live vaccine, ParaSail, in the swine industry.
Diagnosis and treatment
Whether it’s isolating a virus causing a pig to cough, searching for bacteria attributing to diarrhea or finding an answer to stop a pig’s fever, researchers at Newport Labs run tests and then work to develop a vaccine to treat the problem.
“The vaccines we make are, for the most part, custom-made vaccines,” Hause said. “It’s a lot faster for us to isolate the bacteria and the viruses ourselves, and then we can also do additional characterizations.”
The diagnostic labs at Newport are divided into three different groups: a molecular group works on the molecular biology characterization of genes in bacteria, while the main diagnostics lab works in serology (seeking antibodies in blood) and isolating bacteria from samples created on agar plates. Those samples may show the presence of e. coli, staphylococcus, streptomycin or another virus.
Then there is the virology lab, in which workers isolate and grow viruses.
“Viruses are more tedious to work with and require special techniques,” Hause said.
Though samples arrive daily at Newport Labs, certain health issues are more prevalent based on the seasons.
“We make a lot of flu vaccine,” Hause said. “We get a lot of flu samples in the fall, winter and spring. This time of year, we all see ourselves, co-workers and children, get sick more, and it’s the same with the animals.
“One of the things associated with pink eye (in cattle) is sun, flies and dust — things you see in the summer,” he added.
On average, Newport Labs handles about 150 cases each week in its diagnostics labs. That equates to roughly 7,800 cases per year — and a single case could be anything from tissue samples from multiple pigs to 20 nasal swabs from one swine herd.
The length of time it takes to process one case depends on the type of research that needs to be conducted.
Hause said the lab conducts a lot of molecular tests on boar stud semen to look for the presence of PRRS (Porcine Respiratory Reproductive Syndrome), considered the most destructive virus, economically speaking, in the swine industry. PRRS can be spread through boar semen, so studs must be tested for presence of the virus. That type of molecular test can be completed within one day at Newport Labs.
Bacterial cases are a bit more time-consuming because researchers in the lab must first grow the bacteria, then identify and characterize them. Viral cases take the most research — a month or more to isolate, get purified and characterized, Hause said.
When the research is finally complete, a custom vaccine is manufactured for that particular swine herd. The work doesn’t stop there, however.
Hause equated viruses in swine to viruses in humans, like the flu. Each year, researchers develop a new vaccine to cover different strains of flu that may appear in humans, and the same research is done in the swine industry.
“We continually try to isolate new viruses and monitor what’s going on,” Hause said. “As we see new flu strains evolve, then we can certainly adapt the vaccine. It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game a lot of times.”
From time to time, diagnosticians will isolate a virus they can’t identify, and when that happens, Hause said they can send the case to the University of Minnesota, where more specialized equipment — such as an electron microscope — can be used in the research.
“We have a good-sized diagnostic group and good capabilities, but we don’t have all the toys universities do,” Hause said. “But, for the most part, we’re pretty selfsufficient.”
While Newport Labs may rely on universities from time to time for research assistance, the same can be said of the universities. Newport Labs occasionally receives samples from places like the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University and even South Dakota State University.
Eyes on the future
Hause said while Newport Labs continues to develop other commercial vaccines to join its successful launch of ParaSail in 2010, the company is also working to develop new technology that can provide researchers with more information to make better vaccines.
“One of the goals of the diagnostics group (aside from) isolating the virus … is what you can find out about the different viruses — which one could make a pig really sick and which one is really mild,” he said.
That’s why sequencing viruses is so important.
“We compare them to what we’ve seen before and keep an eye out for new influenza we haven’t seen in the swine herd before,” Hause said.
“Ultimately, the goal is to make a vaccine that protects the pig against everything — all the different types of e. coli, all the different types of flu,” he said. “To get there, you really need to have a lot of detailed knowledge as to the makeup of those organisms. That’s where most of our diagnostic research is at — trying to gather more information and knowledge about the bacteria and viruses we work with.”