Study may lead to repurposing existing drugs that are proven to be safe for the treatment of related diseases as the interactome becomes the subject of more research efforts
Researchers from multiple scientific institutions working together have begun using the protein interactome to understand what combination of unique biomarkers is a reliable indicator that a specific drug would benefit a patient. Armed with that knowledge, pharmaceutical companies plan to develop a drug that benefits individuals who have that collection of biomarkers/interactome.
Of course, once the drug exists, the next step is to develop a clinical laboratory test that looks for those biomarkers so that patients can be diagnosed and identified as candidates for the new drug treatment.
Microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists engaged in “omic” studies—such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, phenomics, and transcriptomics—know that scientists are increasingly working to use ever-larger numbers of biomarkers to collectively identify if an individual patient would benefit from a specific drug. This ongoing research is at the heart of precision medicine treatments.
“This work bridges many fields of biology, including statistical genetics, cell biology, and bioinformatics,” said Pedro Beltrão, PhD, Professor in the Department of Biology at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Molecular Systems Biology and former group leader at EMBL-EBI. Microbiologists and clinical laboratories engaged in “omic” studies will understand the significance of this study. (Photo copyright: Gulbenkian Science.)
Study Finds Biological Support for Repurposing Existing Drugs
According to Genetics Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN), “A protein interactome—the network of all possible protein interactions—constitutes an important intermediary step that could bridge the often difficult to cross chasm between genotype [an organism’s complete set of genetic material] and phenotype [an organism’s observable characteristics or traits], and is key in identifying drug targets.”
The scientists discovered more than 1,000 human traits from 21 therapeutic areas, GEN reported. Their process identified drug targets and genes linked to diseases because it pinpoints the shared basis of diseases utilizing a map of interactive human proteins.
The more defined the links are between genetic mechanisms, human traits, and diseases, the more likely their methods can help pharmaceutical companies prioritize those targets for new drugs, and for potentially repurposing existing FDA-approved drugs, the scientists noted.
The study accessed multiple databases including Reactome, Signor, and the EMBL-EBI’s IntAct. The researchers used genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to identify interacting protein groups that were genetically linked.
“The interactome identified some known associations, such as cardiovascular diseases and lipoprotein or cholesterol measurements,” Inigo Barrio Hernandez, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Open Targets and EMBL-EBI, told GEN. “But we also found some unexpected associations. For example, the interactome highlighted three protein clusters shared by ten respiratory and skin immune-related diseases. This is hugely exciting because we now have some biological support to repurpose existing drugs that are proven to be safe to treat related diseases.”
The researchers also identified 73 protein clusters linked to more than one trait or disease. This is known as pleiotropy. Pleiotropic relationships are goldmines to drug companies because they show how a therapy for one disease could effectively treat another, and in addition, it provides insight on targets that could trigger side effects, GEN reported.
What Comes Next?
Pedro Beltrão, PhD—Biology Professor at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Molecular Systems Biology and former group leader at EMBL-EBI—noted the significance of this collaborative study. “It brought together groups from across Open Targets and EMBL-EBI and highlights the value of collaborations across disciplines,” he told GEN.
The study researchers plan to continue identifying, mapping, and utilizing their findings for drug development.
“This is an exciting showcase … that has generated an array of new insights for novel target discovery as well as drug repurposing, and informs our understanding of the connection between rare and common diseases through shared biological processes,” Ellen McDonagh, PhD, Director of Informatics Science at Open Targets, told GEN. “This is now being developed further to provide tissue and cell-type specific networks to help further prioritize targets for disease treatment.”
The term “interactome” was coined in 1999, but many microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists may not be familiar with it. Considering the possibility of new drug therapies based on these newly discovered biomarkers—and the medical laboratory tests that will be needed to identify compatible patients—it’s a good idea to stay aware that protein interactome exists.
Researchers are working to identify the protein interactome, map it, and use it—both in drug discovery and development—as well as in clinical laboratory testing. More research and study is needed, so a medical lab test that advances patient care is a ways off. But the research is worth following.
As we noted, thousands of clinical laboratory tests and surgical pathology readings had to be delayed or cancelled due to the strikes.
An NHS worker in a Liverpool hospital told CNN that conditions felt like a “war zone” with patients being treated in the backs of ambulances, corridors, waiting rooms, cupboards, or not at all since hospitals are well over capacity.
“Those who can afford to get private insurance are,” Chris Thomas (above), told The Guardian. Thomas is Head of the Commission on Health and Prosperity for UK progressive policy think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). “People are not opting out of the NHS because they have stopped believing in it as the best and fairest model of healthcare,” he said. “Rather, those who can afford it are being forced to go private … and those without the funds are left to ‘put up or shut up.’” (Photo copyright: Institute for Public Policy Research.)
Two-Tier System Could Become UK’s Norm, Dividing Classes
The drive towards private insurance is leaving Britain on the brink of having a “two-tier” system where the NHS is overpowered by private healthcare. And it’s not an unwarranted fear. One in six people in Britain are prepared to use private healthcare instead of waiting for the NHS, The Guardian reported.
A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) claims a UK two-tiered system would not mimic what we have here in the US. Rather, if the trend continues in the private direction, it would more likely be comparable to dentistry in England, “… where poor NHS access exists for some and superior but expensive access exists for many. We stand at the precipice of a growing ‘opt-out’ by those who can,” according to the IPPR report, The Guardian noted.
More importantly, this could further divide classes. “Such a trend could threaten the deep and widespread public support for the NHS among voters and leave millions of patients vulnerable because of their ethnicity, postcode, income or job,” The Guardian noted the IPPR report as saying.
“It’s different when you see your everyday reality though naïve eyes. He saw the elderly patients on the jigsaw of trolleys crammed into the department, pushed against the wall, squeezed in the gap between the bed and nursing stations.
“He saw the fluids hanging from rails where we had no stands, lines running into the patient’s forearms. He saw the oxygen fed into their noses from cylinders propped along the bed, the cacophony of beeping machines and alarms.
“It doesn’t look like it does on the TV. It doesn’t even look like it does on reality TV,” she wrote.
The healthcare statistics are alarming. According to CNN:
There was a 20% increase in excess deaths the final week of December 2022, compared to the previous five years.
Half of patients waiting for emergency care that month waited for more than four hours, which was a record.
Also in December, 54,000 people waited more than 12 hours for emergency admission. The wait was “virtually zero” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And “category 2” conditions, such as a stroke or heart attack, had a more than 90-minute wait time for ambulance attendance. The target response time is 18 minutes.
Dim Hopes for Improvement
Though the NHS has struggled in recent years, the challenges are seemingly worse now. “This time feels different. It’s never been as bad as this,” gastroenterologist Peter Neville, MD, a consultant physician who worked with the NHS since 1989, told CNN.
CNN noted that a perfect storm of challenges might have brought the NHS to where it is today. COVID-19, flu seasons paired with COVID, lack of financial support, lack of social support, staffing and morale issues are just some of the problems that the NHS must address.
Experts point out that as the NHS’ struggles increase so begins a loop where one problem feeds another. Patients who wait to be seen have treatments that take longer, then they get sicker, and the cycle continues.
Despite having one of the highest proportions of government healthcare spending on Earth, up to 40% of Britons report having accessed or plan to access private care, Breitbart reported.
Sadly, it’s unlikely enough cash will come in from the UK government to make significant improvements for the NHS. The budget announcement in November showed the NHS was to get an average 2% spending increase over the next two years, CNN reported.
Are there lessons here for US hospitals, clinical laboratories, and pathology groups? Perhaps. It’s always instructive to see how our fellow healthcare providers across the pond respond to public pressure for more access to quality care.
More than 10,000 doctors walked out for the second time in two months, further burdening an already overwhelmed NHS
On April 11, tens of thousands of junior doctors (similar to medical residents in the US) left their posts in British hospitals commencing a four-day walkout. The strike resulted in the cancellation of thousands of operations and appointments, as well as cancelling or delaying thousands of clinical laboratory tests and anatomic pathology readings associated with those healthcare visits and surgical procedures.
The walkout was spurred by pay concerns and working conditions and comes on the heels of a three-day strike last month. That strike had already weakened the UK’s frail National Health System (NHS), which has become inundated with appointment backlogs that predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and which has led to longer wait times to see a doctor, ABC News reported.
This latest strike was more perilous since the senior doctors who covered for their juniors during last month’s strike were previously on leave for a holiday weekend, United Press International (UPI) reported.
“These strikes are going to have a catastrophic impact on the capacity of the NHS to recover,” Matthew Taylor (above), Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, told Sky News. “The health service has to meet high levels of demand at the same time as making inroads into that huge backlog … That’s a tough thing to do at the best of times—it’s impossible to do when strikes are continuing.” (Photo copyright: Wikimedia Commons.)
Junior Docs Cite Injustice
Junior doctors who walked out are calling for a 35% pay raise to right the wrongs of 15 years of below-inflation raises, but the government continues to argue it cannot afford to increase pay, UPI noted.
“There is nothing ‘junior’ about the work I have done as a doctor. For an hour of work that I might save a life, I can be paid 19£ [$23.65],” said Jennifer Barclay, MD, a surgical junior doctor in the UK’s North West electoral zone, in a British Medical Association (BMA) press release.
“My dad, an electrician, tells me to quit and retrain in his footsteps. I’d be earning more, have less stress, less responsibility, better hours, and a better work-life balance after three years,” she added. “Surely, this life, this training, responsibility, debt, and crushing workload is worth more than 19£ per hour? I’ll be on the picket line this week because doctors believe that it is.”
According to the BMA, newly qualified junior doctors earn just over 14£ ($17.43) per hour, ABC News reported, which added, “The doctors’ union has asked for a 35% pay rise to bring junior doctor pay back to 2008 levels.”
However, their pay demands come in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. Inflation has risen above 10%. Paired with increases in heating costs and food prices mean that decreased wages leave many struggling to pay bills, ABC news reports.
A hard-hitting BMA advertising campaign designed to shine light on these disparities depicts three junior doctors (with one-, seven-, and 10-years’ experience) removing an appendix. The video shows that the total the three would be paid for the hour-long operation would be 66.55£ ($82.84):
Doctor with one year experience: 14.09£ ($17.54).
Doctor with two years’ experience: 24.46£ ($30.45).
Doctor with three years’ experience: 28£ ($34.85).
And this for performing a potentially life-saving procedure, the BMA stated.
In the press release, BMA Junior Doctors Committee co-chairs Robert Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi said, “It is appalling that this government feels that paying three junior doctors as little as 66.55£ between them for work of this value is justified. This is highly skilled work requiring years of study and intensive training in a high-pressure environment where the job can be a matter of life or death.”
Patient Care is Affected
Lower salaries also affect patient care levels and have led to recruitment issues, with many doctors leaving the profession, the BBC reported. “This is not a situation where we are fixed in our position. We’re looking for negotiations and Steve Barclay (UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) isn’t even willing to talk to us. He hasn’t put any offer at all on the table … there has to be two sides in the discussion,” Emma Runswick, MD, a junior doctor and deputy chairwoman of the BMA, told the BBC.
But while the junior doctors battle for wages, the government’s initial focus has been on patient wellbeing. “There will be risks to patient safety, risks to patient dignity, as we are not able to provide the kind of care we want to,” NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor told UPI prior to the walkout.
The timing of the walkout also caused consternation with the NHS. “Not only will walkouts risk patient safety, but they have been timed to maximize disruption after the Easter break,” Health Secretary Barclay told UPI as the walkout was announced.
Barclay also claimed the amount sought by doctors was “unreasonable” and would cause raises above $25,000 per year, UPI reported. “If the BMA is willing to move significantly from this position and cancel strikes, we can resume confidential talks and find a way forward as we have done with other unions,” he stated.
It is important to note that doctors would be pulled from picket lines if immediate danger were present due to trade union laws that say life-and-limb coverage must be provided, the BMA told the BBC.
HIMSS names SMC a ‘world leader’ in digital pathology and awards the South Korean Healthcare provider Stage 7 DIAM status
Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory managers in hospitals know that during surgery, time is of the essence. While the patient is still on the surgical table, biopsies must be sent to the lab to be frozen and sectioned before going to the surgical pathologist for reading. Thus, shortening time to answer for frozen sections is a significant benefit.
This effort in surgical pathology is part of a larger story of the digital transformation underway across all service lines at this hospital. For years, SMC has been on track to become one of the world’s “intelligent hospitals,” and it is succeeding. In February, SMC became the first healthcare provider to achieve Stage 7 in the HIMSS Digital Imaging Adoption Model (DIAM), which “assesses an organization’s capabilities in the delivery of medical imaging,” Healthcare IT News reported.
As pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders know, implementation of digital pathology is no easy feat. So, it’s noteworthy that SMC has brought together disparate technologies to reduce turnaround times, and that the medical center has caught the eye of leading health information technology (HIT) organizations.
“The digital pathology system established by the pathology department and SMC’s information strategy team could be one of the good examples of the fourth industrial revolution model applied to a hospital system,” anatomic pathologist Kee Taek Jang, MD (above), Professor of Pathology, Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine, Samsung Medical Center told Healthcare IT News. Clinical laboratory leaders and surgical pathologists understand the value digital pathology can bring to faster turnaround times. (Photo copyright: Samsung Medical Center.)
Anatomic Pathologists Can Read Frozen Sections on Their Smartphones
Prior to implementation of its 5G digital pathology system, surgeons and their patients waited as much as 20 minutes for anatomic pathologists to traverse SMC’s medical campus to reach the healthcare provider’s cancer center diagnostic reading room, Healthcare IT News reported.
Now, SMC’s integrated digital pathology system—which combines slide scanners, analysis software, and desktop computers with a 5G network—has enabled a “rapid imaging search across the hospital,” Healthcare IT News noted. Surgical pathologists can analyze tissue samples faster and from remote locations on digital devices that are convenient to them at the time, a significant benefit to patient care.
“The system has been effective in reducing the turnaround time as pathologists can now attend to frozen test consultations on their smartphone or tablet device via 5G network anywhere in the hospital,” Jean-Hyoung Lee, SMC’s Manager of IT Infrastructure, told Healthcare IT News which noted these system results:
TAT decreased from 20 minutes to 10 minutes.
Transferring scans of large frozen tissues up to three gigabyte in size is now possible through the 5G network.
Additionally, through the 5G network, pathologists can efficiently access CT scans and MRI data on proton therapy cancer treatments. Prior to the change, the doctors had to download the image files in SMC’s Proton Therapy Center, according to a news release from KT Corporation, a South Korean telecommunications company that began working with SMC on building the 5G-connected digital pathology system in 2019.
DIAM is an approach for gauging an organization’s medical imaging delivery capabilities. To achieve Stage 7—External Image Exchange and Patient Engagement—healthcare providers must also have achieved all capabilities outlined in Stages 5 and 6.
In addition, the following must also have been adopted:
The majority of image-producing service areas are exchanging and/or sharing images and reports and/or clinical notes based on recognized standards with care organizations of all types, including local, regional, or national health information exchanges.
The application(s) used in image-producing service areas support multidisciplinary interactive collaboration.
Patients can make appointments, and access reports, images, and educational content specific to their individual situation online.
Patients are able to electronically upload, download, and share their images.
“This is the most comprehensive use of integrated digital pathology we have seen,” Andrew Pearce, HIMSS VP Analytics and Global Advisory Lead, told Healthcare IT News.
SMC’s Manager of IT Planning Seungho Lim told Healthcare IT News the medical center’s goal is to become “a global advanced intelligent hospital through digital health innovation.” The plan is to offer, he added, “super-gap digital services that prioritize non-contact communication and cutting-edge technology.”
For pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders, SMC’s commitment to 5G to move digital pathology data is compelling. And its recognition by HIMSS could inspire more healthcare organization to make changes in medical laboratory workflows. SMC, and perhaps other South Korean healthcare providers, will likely continue to draw attention for their healthcare IT achievements.
Family medicine academic departments in Canada are dealing with a shortage of applicants qualified for their residency programs, mirroring the shortage of pathologists
For the past decade, the number of medical residencies in Alberta Canada that went unfilled have increased each year. Now, just like in many parts of America, the province is experiencing severe medical staffing shortages that includes clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
Though the trend seems to be worse in Alberta, the resident shortage is affecting the entire Canadian healthcare system. According to the Angus Reid Institute, approximately half of all Canadians cannot find a doctor or get a timely appointment with their current doctor.
That is fueling predictions of an increased physician shortage in coming years, particularly in Alberta.
What’s standing in the way of Canadian doctors becoming licensed to practice? Some claim the system of residency matching is discriminatory towards Canadian doctors who received their training outside of Canada. Rosemary Pawliuk, President of the Society for Canadians Studying Medicine Abroad, is one of those who believe the system of matching is broken.
“They have cute slogans like, ‘You’re wanted and welcome in Canada,’ but when you look at the barriers, it’s very clear that you should not come home. Their message is essentially, ‘Go away’ and so [doctors] do,” Pawliuk told the CBC.
According the Pawliuk, “the current residency selection system puts internationally trained Canadian doctors at a serious disadvantage,” the CBC reported. “The Canadian public should be entitled to the best qualified Canadian applicant. Whether they’ve graduated from a Canadian school or an international school, whether they’re a Canadian by birth or if they’re an immigrant, they should be competing on individual merit,” she added.
Canada’s Medical School Matching Bias
In Canada’s current matching system, medical schools decide who gets a residency. Critics say the schools are biased towards Canadian-educated doctors and overlook foreign-trained doctors. About 90% of all residencies in Canada are set aside for Canadian-trained doctors and the remaining spots are left for the physicians trained abroad, CBC noted.
It is important to note that these doctors who are trained abroad are either Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Thus, it’s not a question of citizens from other countries competing with Canadian citizens.
So, if a surplus of doctors are being shut out of residency training opportunities, why are there open slots in Alberta? Some believe this indicates individuals are not interested in practicing medicine in Alberta.
But Rinaldi still has concerns, “We may fill them with 42 disinterested people who have no interest in family medicine,” she says.
Anderson admits that “Across the country, over the last five or more years, family medicine has become less popular with medical students graduating from medical schools than it was in the years before.”
Therefore, both Anderson’s and Hemmelgarn’s schools have changed curriculum to put more of an emphasis on family medicine. Perhaps with these changes, and possibly an opening for internationally-trained Canadian doctors to achieve residency positions, Alberta’s—indeed all of Canada’s—residency match days will be better attended.
In the United States, there is little news coverage about serious problems with the health systems in other nations. The experience of residency programs in Canada, as explained above, demonstrates how a different national health system has unique issues that are not identical to issues in the US healthcare system. What is true is that Canada is dealing with a similar shortage of skilled medical technologists (MTs) and clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), just like here in the United States.
It is more than a shortage of nurses, as most clinical laboratories report the same shortages of medical technologists and increased labor costs
Just as hospital-based clinical laboratories are unable to hire and retain adequate numbers of medical technologists (MTs) and clinical laboratory scientists (CLSs), the nursing shortage is also acute. Compounding the challenge of staffing nurses is the rapid rise in the salaries of nurses because hospitals need nurses to keep their emergency departments, operating rooms, and other services open and treating patients while also generating revenue.
The nursing shortage has been blamed on burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but nurses also report consistently deteriorating conditions and say they feel undervalued and under-appreciated, according to Michigan Advance, which recently covered an averted strike by nurses at 118-bed acute care McLaren Central Hospital in Mt. Pleasant and 97-bed teaching hospital MyMichigan Medical Center Alma, both in Central Michigan.
“Nurses are leaving the bedside because the conditions that hospital corporations are creating are unbearable. The more nurses leave, the worse it becomes. This was a problem before the pandemic, and the situation has only deteriorated over the last three years,” said Jamie Brown, RN, President of the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) and a critical care nurse at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan Advance reported.
“The staffing crisis will never be adequately addressed until working conditions at hospitals are improved,” said Jamie Brown, RN (above), President of the Michigan Nurses Association in a press release. Brown’s statement correlates with claims by laboratory technicians about working conditions in clinical laboratories all over the country that are experiencing similar shortages of critical staff. (Photo copyright: Michigan Nurses Association.)
Nurse Understaffing Dangerous to Patients
In the lead up to the Michigan nurses’ strike, NPR reported on a poll conducted by market research firm Emma White Research LLC on behalf of the MNA that found 42% of nurses surveyed claimed “they know of a patient death due to nurses being assigned too many patients.” The same poll in 2016 found only 22% of nurses making the same claim.
And yet, according to an MNA news release, “There is no law that sets safe RN-to-patient ratios in hospitals, leading to RNs having too many patients at one time too often. This puts patients in danger and drives nurses out of the profession.”
Seven in 10 RNs working in direct care say they are assigned an unsafe patient load in half or more of their shifts.
Over nine in 10 RNs say requiring nurses to care for too many patients at once is affecting the quality of patient care.
Requiring set nurse-to-patient ratios could also make a difference in retention and in returning qualified nurses to the field.
According to NPR, “Nurses across the state say dangerous levels of understaffing are becoming the norm, even though hospitals are no longer overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.”
Thus, nursing organizations in Michigan, and the legislators who support change, have proposed the Safe Patient Care Act which sets out to “to increase patient safety in Michigan hospitals by establishing minimum nurse staffing levels, limiting mandatory overtime for RNs, and adding transparency,” according to an MNA news release.
Huge Increase in Nursing Costs
Another pressure on hospitals is the rise in the cost of replacing nurses with temporary or travel nurses to maintain adequate staffing levels.
In “Hospital Temporary Labor Costs: a Staggering $1.52 Billion in FY2022,” the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association noted that “To fill gaps in staffing, hospitals hire registered nurses and other staff through ‘traveler’ agencies. Traveler workers, especially RNs in high demand, command higher hourly wages—at least two or three times more than what an on-staff clinician would earn. Many often receive signing bonuses. In Fiscal Year 2019, [Massachusetts] hospitals spent $204 million on temporary staff. In FY2022, they spent $1.52 billion—a 610% increase. According to the MHA survey, approximately 77% of the $1.52 billion went to hiring temporary RNs.”
It’s likely this same scenario is playing out in hospitals all across America.
Are Nursing Strikes a Symptom of a Larger Healthcare Problem?
“But the problem is much bigger,” Fortune wrote. “Care workers—physicians, home health aides, early childhood care workers, physician assistants, and more—face critical challenges as a result of America’s immense care gap that may soon touch every corner of the American economy.”
Clinical laboratories are experiencing the same shortages of critical staff due in large part to the same workplace issues affecting nurses. Dark Daily covered this growing crisis in several ebriefings.
We also covered in that ebrief how the so-called “Great Resignation” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on clinical laboratory staffs, creating shortages of pathologists as well as of medical technologists, medical laboratory technicians, and other lab scientists who are vital to the nation’s network of clinical laboratories.
Hospitals across the United States—and in the UK, according to Reuters—are facing worker strikes, staff shortages, rising costs, and uncertainty about the future. Just like clinical laboratories and other segments of the healthcare industry, worker burnout and exhaustion in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic are being cited as culprits for these woes.
But was it predictable and could it have been avoided?
Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and staffing shortages exasperated by it, will be felt by clinical laboratories, pathology groups, and the healthcare industry in general for years to come. Creative solutions must be employed to avoid more staff shortages and increase employee retention and recruitment.