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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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NIH Scientists Develop New Clinical Laboratory Assay to Measure Effectiveness of ‘Good’ Cholesterol

Clinical studies show that new ‘cell-free’ test can predict cardiovascular disease risk better than standard HDL cholesterol test

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have developed a diagnostic assay that measures how well high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the so-called “good” cholesterol—is working in the body. And their findings could lead to new clinical laboratory tests that supplement standard HDL level testing to better determine a person’s risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol tests are among the most commonly performed assays by clinical laboratories. A new test that reveals how well HDL is working in the body would certainly boost a medical laboratory’s test requisition volume.

The researchers are with the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

“Measuring HDL function is limited to research labs and isn’t conducive to large-scale testing by routine clinical laboratories. To try to solve that problem, researchers from NHLBI’s Lipoprotein Metabolism Laboratory created a new diagnostic test,” noted an NHLBI news release.

“This is going to quicken the pace of basic research,” said Edward B. Neufeld, PhD, who along with guest researcher Masaki Sato, PhD, developed the test. “It increases the number of samples that you can study. It increases the number of experiments you can do.”

The researchers published their findings in The Journal of Clinical Investigation titled, “Cell-Free, High-Density Lipoprotein–Specific Phospholipid Efflux Assay Predicts Incident Cardiovascular Disease.” They have also patented their test and plan to work with a company on licensing and manufacturing it.

Such a new cholesterol test would quickly become one of the most commonly performed clinical lab tests because just about every American who has a physical gets cholesterol tests as part of that process.

“Other people may modify this or come up with better versions, which is fine with us,” Edward Neufeld, PhD (above), NHLBI Staff Scientist, said in a news release. “We just really wanted to tackle this problem of evaluating HDL function.” Clinical laboratories may soon have a new cholesterol test to supplement standard HDL level testing. (Photo copyright: ResearchGate.)

Faster Answers Needed about HDL 

According to the NIH, the goal should go beyond measuring level of HDL as part of a person’s annual physical. What is also needed is finding out whether HDL cholesterol is effectively doing certain tasks, such as removing extra cholesterol from arteries and transporting it to the liver.

The NHLBI’s new cell-free test may make it possible to step up large-scale clinical testing of HDL function, according to the news release. As it stands now, HDL function study has been limited to research labs where testing involves “harvesting cells in the lab [which] can take days to process,” according to NIH Record.

“Most studies to date that have assessed CAD (coronary artery disease) risk by HDL functionality still use the CEC (cellular cholesterol efflux capacity) in vitro assay and are based on the use of radioisotopes (3H-cholesterol) and cultured cells, which is very labor intensive and impractical to do in a clinical laboratory,” the researchers wrote in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. They also pointed out that CEC batch-to-batch variability does not fit clinical laboratories’ need for standardization.

Advantages of NHLBI’s Test  

To overcome these barriers, the NHLBI researchers created an HDL-specific phospholipid efflux (HDL-SPE) assay that has certain advantages over current HDL function assessments done in research labs.

According to the NIH, the HDP-SPE assay:

  • Is easy to replicate in clinical labs.
  • Is more suited to automation and large samples.
  • Offers up results in about an hour.
  • Is a better predictor of cardiovascular disease risk than HDL cholesterol testing for CAD risk.

“We developed a cell-free, HDL-specific phospholipid efflux assay for the assessment of CAD risk on the basis of HDL functionality in whole plasma or serum. One of the main advantages of the HDL-SPE assay is that it can be readily automated, unlike the various CEC assays currently in use,” the authors noted in their paper.

Here is how the test is performed, according to the NIH:

  • Plasma with HDL is separated from the patient’s blood.
  • “Plasma is added to donor particles coated with a lipid mixture resembling plaque and a fluorescent-tagged phospholipid” that only HDL can remove.
  • The fluorescent signal by HDL is then measured.
  • A bright signal suggests optimal HDL lipid removal function, while a dim light means reduced function.

The test builds on the scientists’ previous findings and data. In creating the new assay they drew on data from:

  • A study of 50 severe CAD and 50 non-CAD people.
  • A Japanese study of 70 CAD and 154 non-CAD participants.
  • Examined association of HDL-SPE with cardiovascular disease in a study of 340 patients and 340 controls.

“We have established the HDL-SPE assay for assessment of the functional ability of HDL to efflux phospholipids. Our combined data consistently show that our relatively simple HDL-SPE assay captures a pathophysiologically relevant parameter of HDL function that is at least equivalent to the CEC assay in its association with prevalent and incident CAD,” the researchers concluded in The Journal of Clinical Investigation

Test May Be Subject to New FDA Rule

While HDL cardiovascular-related research is moving forward, studies aimed at the therapeutic side need to pick up, NIH noted.

“Someday we may have a drug that modulates HDL and turns out to be beneficial, but right now we don’t have that,” said Alan Remaley MD, PhD, NHLBI Senior Investigator and Head of the Lipoprotein Metabolism Laboratory, in the news release.

It may be years before the HDL-SPE test is used in medical settings, the researchers acknowledged, adding that more studies are needed with inclusion of different ethnicities.

Additionally, in light of the recently released US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) final rule on regulation of laboratory developed tests (LDT), the company licensed to bring the test to market may need to submit the HDL-SPE assay to the FDA for premarket review and clearance. That could lengthen the time required for the developers to comply with the FDA before the test is used by doctors and clinical laboratories in patient care.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

FDA Takes Action Aimed at Helping Ensure Safety and Effectiveness of Laboratory Developed Tests

Cell-free, High-Density Lipoprotein-Specific Phospholipid Efflux Assay Predicts Incident Cardiovascular Disease

An Updated Test Measures How Well “Good Cholesterol” Works

NHLBI Refines Test for Good Cholesterol Function

Washington University School of Medicine Researchers Find Accelerated Aging May be Contributing to an Increase in Early-onset Cancers among Young People

More research into accelerated aging may lead to new clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology testing biomarkers for early-onset cancer

Could accelerated aging be contributing to the rise in early-onset cancer rates among younger individuals? A recent study conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (WUSTL) claims the condition may be partially to blame for the increase in cancer diagnoses among young people. But what is accelerated aging, and what tests will clinical laboratories be required to perform to help physicians diagnose early-onset cancer in that age group?

“Accelerated aging—when someone’s biological age [how old one’s cells are] is greater than their chronological age [how long one has existed]—could increase the risk of cancer tumors,” Fox News reported.

In their presentation at the 2024 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting, the WUSTL researchers noted that “individuals born in or after 1965 had a 17% higher likelihood of accelerated aging than those born between 1950 and 1954,” according to an AACR news release.

The scientists studied “the association between accelerated aging and the risk of early-onset cancers,” and found that “each standard deviation increase in accelerated aging was associated with a 42% increased risk of early-onset lung cancer, a 22% increased risk of early-onset gastrointestinal cancer, and a 36% increased risk of early-onset uterine cancer.”

“Multiple cancer types are becoming increasingly common among younger adults in the United States and globally,” said Ruiyi Tian, MPH, a PhD candidate at WUSTL, in the news release. “Understanding the factors driving this increase will be key to improve the prevention or early detection of cancers in younger and future generations.”

Tian was part of the team conducting the study at the Cao Lab at WUSTL. The primary function of this lab is to uncover risk factors for various cancers and develop precision medicine protocols for cancer prevention and treatment. 

“Historically, both cancer and aging have been viewed primarily as concerns for older populations,” Ruiyi Tian, MPH (above), a graduate student at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and one of the study’s researchers, told Fox News. “The realization that cancer, and now aging, are becoming significant issues for younger demographics over the past decades was unexpected.” Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists will likely be performing cancer testing on younger populations as incidences of early-onset cancer increase. (Photo copyright: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.)

Biological versus Chronological Aging

A study published last year in BMJ Oncology titled, “Global Trends in Incidence, Death, Burden and Risk Factors of Early-Onset Cancer from 1990 to 2019,” stated that early onset of 29 cancers increased by almost 79% globally between 1990 and 2019. Early-onset cancer deaths rose by almost 28% during that time period. 

The WUSTL researchers set out to prove that both chronological age and biological age could be determining factors in early-onset cancers. Chronological age refers to the amount of time an individual has been alive, while biological age refers to the age of cells and tissues based on physiological evidence.

“We all know cancer is an aging disease. However, it is really coming to a younger population,” said Yin Cao, MPH, Associate Professor of Surgery at WUSTL and senior author of the study, told CNN. “So, whether we can use the well-developed concept of biological aging to apply that to the younger generation is a really untouched area.”

To perform the research, the scientists examined data of 148,724 individuals between the ages of 37 and 54 located in the UK Biobank database. They calculated each person’s biological age by examining nine biomarkers found in blood:

They then input the data into the PhenoAge algorithm which estimated the biological age of each person.

“Individuals whose biological age was higher than their chronological age were defined as having accelerated aging,” the AACR news release noted.

The next step was to calculate each person’s level of accelerated aging by comparing biological and chronological ages. They then looked at how many of the individuals studied had been diagnosed with early-onset cancers.

For the WUSTL study, early-onset cancers were defined as cancers that were diagnosed before age 55. The researchers found 3,200 cases where such cancers had been discovered. 

Faster Agers Twice as Likely to Develop Early-onset Cancer

The scientists then compared the data of people who showed slower aging to those showing faster aging based on the biobank samples. They found that individuals who had the highest accelerated aging were twice as likely to be diagnosed with early-onset lung cancer, had a 60% higher risk of gastrointestinal tumors, and had a more than 80% higher risk of uterine cancer.

“By examining the relationship between accelerating aging and the risk of early-onset cancers, we provide a fresh perspective on the shared etiology of early-onset cancers,” Tian said in the news release. “If validated, our findings suggest that interventions to slow biological aging could be a new avenue for cancer prevention, and screening efforts tailored to younger individuals with signs of accelerated aging could help detect cancers early.”

More clinical studies and research are needed to determine if accelerated aging truly is causing a rise in early-onset cancers. The fact that all of the participants in this study were from the United Kingdom indicates that future studies should include more diverse populations.

Studying accelerated aging’s influence on early-onset cancer may lead to new biomarkers that clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists can use to help physicians diagnose the condition. Laboratory scientists and pathologists will want to follow any ongoing research and studies on the trend, as ‘accelerated aging’ might be identified as a new disorder to look for when diagnosing and treating cancers. 

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Accelerated Aging May Increase the Risk of Early-onset Cancers in Younger Generations

Cancer Rates Rising in Young People Due to ‘Accelerated Aging,’ New Study Finds: ‘Highly Troubling’

Global Trends in Incidence, Death, Burden and Risk Factors of Early-onset Cancer from 1990 to 2019

Accelerated Aging Linked to Cancer Risk in Younger Adults, Research Shows

Accelerated Aging May be a Cause of Increased Cancers in People under 55

Utah Cancer Researcher Says New Accelerated Aging Study Needs More Examination

What to Know about Rising Rates of ‘Early-Onset’ Cancer

Chronological vs. Biological Age

Early-onset Cancer: Faster Biological Aging May be Driving Rates in Young Adults

Rise in Cancer Rates among Young People Contributes to New Phenomenon of ‘Turbo Cancers’ as a Cause for Concern

American Cancer Society Annual Report Shows Cervical Cancer Rate Increasing, but Only among 30- to 40-Year-Olds

CVS Health is Changing the Way it Prices Prescription Drugs Using a New Cost-Plus Model

New ‘simple’ pricing scheme will provide transparency and value to all stakeholders, says company’s Chief Pharmacy Officer

Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS Health (NYSE:CVS) is planning to scrap what it says is an old-school prescription reimbursement model and turn to a new way to price prescription medications at its 9,000 CVS pharmacies nationwide. Why is this relevant for clinical laboratory and pathology managers? It shows the disruption that is ongoing in healthcare.

Like clinical laboratories, retail pharmacies have significant reimbursement, competition, and labor challenges to address. But unique to retail pharmacies is the emergence of pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies that work between health insurance plans and drug makers.

“National pharmacy chains found themselves disintermediated from providing prescriptions to patients by pharmacy benefit management (PBM) companies. By 2021, PBMs had captured $484 billion of the total prescription drug spending of $576.9 billion. That meant PBMs controlled 84% of the prescription drug market! That caused retail pharmacies to look for new sources of revenue,” noted Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report.

This arrangement may be motivating retail pharmacy companies to seek ways to recover the volume lost to PBMs.

CVS’ new CostVantage model will work with a formula based on how much CVS paid for the drug, a set markup over those costs, and a fee for pharmacy services to fill the prescription, according to a news release. Some experts and publications have compared the change to the approach used by the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company.

CVS Health expects to start CostVantage in 2024 before introducing it to PBMs for commercial payers in 2025.

CVS is “committed to lowering drug pricing,” CVS Health Chief Executive Officer Karen Lynch (above), CVS Health’s President and Chief Executive Officer, told CNBC. “What this (the new model) does is it essentially aligns the economics of our pricing for drugs to what consumers will pay at the pharmacy counter,” she added. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should understand that this new pricing strategy may be an attempt by CVS to win back prescription business lost to pharmacy benefit management companies. (Photo copyright: Rick Burn/Wikipedia.)

CVS Aims for Value and Transparency

CVS Health’s leaders believe it is time for a change in how the company’s pharmacies are reimbursed by PBMs and other payers.

Prem Shah, PharmD, Executive Vice President and Chief Pharmacy Officer, CVS Health, explained during a CVS Health Corporation Investor Day presentation some of the challenges of current pharmacy reimbursement:

  • Generic drugs dispensed in CVS pharmacies reached 90%. “That limits the capacity or the amount of value remaining through the higher levels of generic dispensing,” he said.
  • Also branded drugs have risen in price about 40% since 2019, leading to “higher costs for patients, our customers’ plans, and PBM plan sponsors.”

“This model has reached an inflection point that is just ripe for change,” Shah said. “We’re changing this outdated reimbursement model that made sense for the last decade, but no longer works today or in the future. We’re introducing a new simple model that provides value for all stakeholders across the supply chain in a much more simple, transparent, and comprehensive way,” he continued.

Cost-Plus Plans versus Retail Drug Prices 

Fierce Healthcare compared CVS CostVantage to the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, which claims it offers prescription drugs at prices below traditional pharmacies and openly shares with customers the “15% markup over its cost, plus pharmacy fees.”

Some examples on the company’s website include: Abiraterone acetate (generic for Zytiga), a prostate cancer treatment. It is priced at $33.50, compared to $1,093 retail. Cost Plus Drug Company says its costs are:

  • Manufacturing: $24.60
  • 15% markup: $3.90
  • Pharmacy labor fee: $5.00

Another drug offered is canagliflozin (generic for Invokana), a type 2 diabetes medication, which sells for $245.92, compared to $676.14 retail. Cost Plus Drug Company says its costs are:

  • Manufacturing: $209.50
  • 15% markup: $31.42
  • Pharmacy labor fee: $5

Expert Sees More Cost-Plus Plans

In a column he penned for Drug Channels titled, “What CVS Pharmacy’s New Cost-Plus Reimbursement Approach Means for PBMs, Pharmacies, Plan Sponsors, and Prescription Prices,” Adam Fein, PhD, President of the Drug Channels Institute, a pharmaceutical research firm, wrote “Mark Cuban should be flattered but not fearful.”

Fein predicts there will be more cost-plus models by retail pharmacies. “Other large pharmacies will likely follow CVS with attempts to force payers and PBMs to accept some form of cost-plus reimbursement,” he wrote.

Fein noted pharmacies prefer cost-plus models for reasons including the “stripping away of complexity and hidden cross-subsidies. … For a pharmacy, the same PBM would pay the same price for the same prescription regardless of the PBM’s arrangement with different plan sponsors.”

Turbulent Retail Pharmacy Market

CVS has also been dealing with limited growth, pharmacist labor relations issues, and a decline in COVID-19 testing, Healthcare Dive reported.

Meanwhile, pharmacies have been closing store sites and affiliated physician practices. CVS announced plans to close 900 stores between 2022 and 2024, according to a news release.

Rite Aid Corporation, Philadelphia, announced last year that it had filed for bankruptcy and may eventually close 400 to 500 of its 2,100 stores. 

Walgreens Boots Alliance, Deerfield, Ill., intends to close 150 US and 300 United Kingdom locations, according to its former Chief Financial Officer James Kehoe’s remarks in a third quarter 2023 earnings call transcribed by Motley Fool.

The turbulence in the retail pharmacy market is another sign of ongoing disruption in healthcare. Long-established sectors are experiencing market shifts that are eroding their access to patients and ability to generate adequate profits.

Understanding how pharmacies approach these issues may help medical laboratory and pathology managers develop strategies for adding value to their relationships with healthcare providers and insurance plans.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

CVS Health Highlights Path to Accelerating Long-Term Growth through Building a World of Health Around Every Consumer

CVS to Change How it Prices Prescription Drugs with New Pharmacy Reimbursement Model

CVS Health Corporation Investor Day

Navigating CVS’s New Pricing Models: What to Know about CVS CostVantage and CVS Caremark TrueCost

CVS Health Revamps Pharmacy Reimbursement Model Amid Scrutiny on High Drug Prices

What CVS Pharmacy’s New Cost-Plus Reimbursement Approach Means for PBMs, Pharmacies, Plan Sponsors, and Prescription Prices

CVS Health Announces Steps to Accelerate Omnichannel Health

CVS Overhauls How Its Retail Pharmacies Charge for Prescription Drugs

Walgreens to Close 60 VillageMD Locations

Bankruptcies and Store Closings are Signs of Tough Times Ahead for US Retail Pharmacy Chains

American Cancer Society Annual Report Shows Cervical Cancer Rate Increasing, but Only among 30- to 40-Year-Olds

Lack of regular clinical laboratory screenings in this age group at least partially to blame, researchers say

While cervical cancer rates have seen a 50-year decline overall, that trend is shifting among 30- to 40 year-olds who have experienced a near 2% increase from 2012-2019. This finding comes from a 2024 American Cancer Society (ACS) report that is eyeing the timeline of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines and the lack of clinical laboratory cancer screenings as possible contributors to this new trend.

Though a 2% increase is significant, the study, which was published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, titled “Cancer Statistics, 2024,” noted that these cancers were “mostly early, curable tumors,” epidemiologist Ahmedin Jemal DVM, PhD, Senior Vice President Surveillance and Health Equity Science at ACS, and senior author of the new report, told NBC News.

To understand how the increase in cancer rates impacts this age group, consider the numbers: “About 13,800 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and 4,360 die from the disease,” NBC reported.

US vaccination programs for youths have lagged behind nations that have embraced HPV vaccination to positive results.

Australia, for example, has vaccinated a high proportion of its youth since the vaccine was first released in 2006. In 2023, the nation created its National Strategy for the Elimination of Cervical Cancer in Australia program and expects cervical cancer to be fully eliminated there by 2035.

For lab professionals, this demonstrates how new technologies like the HPV test and vaccine can alter how individuals are screened for diseases, and how vaccines can reduce and even eliminate diseases that were once common.

“We need to make sure we are not forgetting about that generation that was a little too old for HPV vaccination,” Jennifer Spencer, PhD (above), Assistant Professor, Department of Population Health and Department Internal Medicine, Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin, told NBC News. “The onus is on the healthcare system to think about who is slipping through the cracks,” she added. Lack of clinical laboratory screenings among the 30-40 age group may be contributing to the increase in cervical cancer rates. (Photo copyright: Dell Medical School.)

Lack of Clinical Laboratory Screenings

Research points to a lag in cervical cancer screenings as a possible cause for the recent rise in cases. Timely screening allows doctors to both identify and remove any worrisome lesions before they become cancerous, Jennifer Spencer, PhD, Assistant Professor of the Department of Population Health, Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin, told NBC News.

Spencer was not involved in the American Cancer Society study, but rather had her own study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2023 titled, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Cervical Cancer Screening from Three US Healthcare Settings.”

Screenings for women ages 21-65 have fallen 15% since 2000, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. Also, more than half of women with cervical cancer have “either never been screened or haven’t been screened in the past five years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” NBC reported.

The US Preventative Services Task Force recommends that women 21-29 years of age should receive Pap smears every three years. Women 30-65 years of age should do the same, or every five years with an HPV test or combo test.

Despite a decrease in cervical cancer, 29% of women in their 20s are overdue to get screening, NBC noted. This was the age group most likely to be lagging on getting screened. Spencer says that this delay in screening could explain the resulting increase in cervical cancer among the 30-40 age group.

Causes for Lack in Screenings

Regardless of age group, women who were uninsured, in a rural area, non-white, or identifying as lesbian, bisexual, or gay were also more likely to be overdue on screenings, according to Spencer’s study.

In addition, women who just moved to the United States may have missed their screenings, thus increasing risk, epidemiologist Nicholas Wentzensen, MD, PhD, Deputy Director, Senior Investigator, and Head of the Clinical Epidemiology Unit at the National Cancer Institute, told NBC News.

Additionally, Spencer found in her research that confusion exists by both patients and doctors on when cervical screening should take place. Some participants in her study did not have screening recommended by their doctors, while others simply did not recognize it was necessary.

“When women in one of Spencer’s studies were asked why they hadn’t been screened recently, they commonly said that they didn’t know they needed to be screened or that a health provider hadn’t recommended it. Only 1% [of] women ages 21 to 29 said they had skipped screening because they had received the HPV shot,” NBC News reported.

A 2022 Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) report also looked at screenings as a possible cause. Those researchers found that “only 73% of women with abnormal screening results received follow-up care,” NBC reported.

“If the increase (in cases) is real, it could be a result of missed screening opportunities at earlier ages, as suggested by the increase in squamous cell carcinoma and localized disease. It may also stem from a decrease in screening at younger ages,” the JAMA study authors wrote.

HPV Vaccine and Cervical Cancer Prevention

The HPV vaccine is another important area of research to be considered. Approved in 2006, HPV vaccines were beneficial because HPV “causes six types of cancer, including cervical cancer,” NBC reported.

Women in their early 20s at that time were the first generation to benefit from HPV vaccines, NBC noted. It may be that they continue to benefit in a decrease in cervical cancer among their cohort.

Countries that have emphasized HPV vaccines and stringent screenings in their cancer prevention efforts are reaping the benefits of that policy.

In “Australia Moves to Fully Eliminate Cervical Cancer by 2035, Especially in Underserved and Diverse Populations,” Dark Daily reported how Australia was one of the first nations to implement HPV vaccination programs. By 2010, Australia was working to vaccinate every child. Now, 14 years later, the pool of adults vaccinated against HPV in that nation is causing the rates of cervical cancer to fall.

Follow-through is Key for Patients

Though cancer screening and the HPV vaccine are important first steps women should take to prevent cervical cancer, follow-through clinical laboratory testing and diagnosis is crucial, Spencer added. This would include additional testing and treatment for any abnormal results of the cancer screening.

However, according to Spencer, “only 73% of women with abnormal screening results received follow-up care,” NBC reported.

Healthcare policymakers today are emphasizing the need for providers to identify and close gaps in care as a way to improve patient outcomes and help control the cost of care. Women who are overdue for a cervical cancer screening test—whether an HPV test or Pap smear—have this care gap. This creates an opportunity for clinical labs to add value.

Clinical laboratories could be helpful during this period by looking at patient files to note which patients are overdue for screenings and then alerting their doctors. Medical labs also could work directly with doctors to establish a program to reach out to patients. Labs would thus be adding value as well as benefitting patients.

—Kristin Althea O’Connor

Related Information:

Cervical Cancer Increasing in Women in Their 30s and 40s, New Report Finds

Cervical Cancer Incidence among US Women, 2001-2019

Cancer Statistics, 2024

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Cervical Cancer Screening from Three US Healthcare Settings

Australia Moves to Fully Eliminate Cervical Cancer by 2035, Especially in Underserved and Diverse Populations

Boston Children’s Hospital Hires a Prompt Engineer to Help the Healthcare Organization Deploy and Use Artificial Intelligence Applications

This may be a new ‘sign of the times’ as hospitals, clinical laboratories, and other healthcare providers working with AI find they also need to hire their own prompt engineers

Boston Children’s Hospital last year hired a “prompt engineer” to propel the hospital forward in using Artificial intelligence (AI) as part of its business model. But what is AI prompting? It’s a relatively new term and may not be familiar to clinical laboratory and pathology leaders.

AI “prompting,” according to Florida State University, “refers to the process of interacting with an AI system by providing specific instructions or queries to achieve a desired outcome.”

According to workable.com, prompt engineers specialize “in developing, refining, and optimizing AI-generated text prompts to ensure they are accurate, engaging, and relevant for various applications. They also collaborate with different teams to improve the prompt generation process and overall AI system performance.” 

Healthcare institutions are getting more serious about using AI to improve daily workflows and clinical care, including in the clinical laboratory and pathology departments. But adopting the new technology can be disruptive. To ensure the implementation goes smoothly, hospitals are now seeking prompt engineers to guide the organization’s strategy for using AI. 

When Boston Children’s Hospital leaders set out to find such a person, they looked for an individual who had “a clinical background [and] who knows how to use these tools. Someone who had experience coding for large language models and natural language processing, but who could also understand clinical language,” according to MedPage Today.

“We got many, many applications, some really impressive people, but we were looking for a specific set of skills and background,” John Brownstein, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School, told MedPage Today.

“It was not easy to find [someone]—a bit of a unicorn-type candidate,” noted Brownstein, who is also a medical contributor to ABC News.

After a four-month search, the hospital hired Dinesh Rai, MD, emergency room physician and AI engineer, for the position. According to Brownstein, Rai had “actually practiced medicine, lived in a clinical environment,” and had “successfully launched many [AI] applications on top of large language models,” MedPage Today reported.

“Some of the nuances I bring to the table in terms of being a physician and having worked clinically and understanding really deeply the clinical workflows and how we can implement the [AI] technology—where its limits are, where it can excel, and the quickest way to get things [done],” Dinesh Rai, MD (above), told MedPage Today. “I’m happy to be able to help with all of that.” Hospital clinical laboratory and pathology managers may soon by engaging with prompt engineers to ensure the smooth use of AI in their departments. (Photo copyright: LinkedIn.)

Prompt Engineers are like F1 Drivers

“It’s kind of like driving a car, where basically anyone can drive an automatic car, and anyone can go onto ChatGPT, write some text, and get a pretty solid response,” said Rai, describing the act of AI prompting to MedPage today.

Then, there are “people who know how to drive manual, and there are people who will know different prompting techniques, like chain-of-thought or zero-shot prompting,” he added. “Then you have those F1 drivers who are very intimate with the mechanics of their car, and how to use it most optimally.”

The American Hospital Association (AHA) believes that AI “holds great promise in helping healthcare providers gain insights and improve health outcomes.” In an article titled, “How AI Is Improving Diagnostics, Decision-Making and Care,” the AHA noted that, “Although many questions remain regarding its safety, regulation, and impact, the use of AI in clinical care is no longer in its infancy and is expected to experience exponential growth in the coming years.

“AI is improving data processing, identifying patterns, and generating insights that otherwise might elude discovery from a physician’s manual effort. The next five years will be critical for hospitals and health systems to build the infrastructure needed to support AI technology, according to the recently released Futurescan 2023,” the AHA wrote.

The graphic above is taken from the American Hospital Association’s article about Futurescan’s 2023 survey results on AI in healthcare. “Healthcare executives from across the nation were asked how likely it is that by 2028 a federal regulatory body will determine that Al for clinical care delivery augmentation (e.g., assisted diagnosis and prescription, personalized medication and care) is safe for use by our hospital or health systems,” AHA stated. This would include the use of AI in clinical laboratories and pathology group practices. (Graphic copyright: American Hospital Association.)

The AHA listed the top three opportunities for AI in clinical care as:

  • Clinical Decision Tools: “AI algorithms analyze a vast amount of patient data to assist medical professionals in making more informed decisions about care.”
  • Diagnostic and Imaging: The use of AI “allows healthcare professionals to structure, index, and leverage diagnostic and imaging data for more accurate diagnoses.”
  • Patient Safety: The use of AI improves decision making and optimizes health outcomes by evaluating patient data. “Systems that incorporate AI can improve error detection, stratify patients, and manage drug delivery.”

The hiring of a prompt engineer by Boston Children’s Hospital is another example of how AI is gaining traction in clinical healthcare. According to the Futurescan 2023 survey, nearly half of hospital CEOs and strategy leaders believe that health systems will have the infrastructure in place by 2028 to successfully utilize AI in clinical decision making. 

“I’m lucky to [be] in an organization that has recognized the importance of AI as part of the future practice of medicine,” Rai told MedPage Today.

Pathologists and managers of clinical laboratories and genetic testing companies will want to track further advancements in artificial intelligence. At some point, the capabilities of future generations of AI solutions may encourage labs to hire their own prompt engineers.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Why One Hospital Hired an AI Prompt Engineer

This Children’s Hospital is Integrating AI with Healthcare

How Five Healthcare Organizations Are Investing in AI for Patient Care

What is a Large Language Model (LLM)?

How AI is Improving Diagnostics, Decision-making and Care

Prompt Engineer Job Description

Chain-of-Thought Prompting

Zero-Shot Prompting

Futurescan 2023: Health Care Trends and Implications

Artificial Intelligence in the Operating Room: Dutch Scientists Develop AI Application That Informs Surgical Decision Making during Cancer Surgery

UK Study Claims AI Reading of CT Scans Almost Twice as Accurate at Grading Some Cancers as Clinical Laboratory Testing of Sarcoma Biopsies

Stanford Researchers Use Text and Images from Pathologists’ Twitter Accounts to Train New Pathology AI Model

Big Industry Changes in Focus at the Annual Executive War College

FDA announces final rule on Lab-Developed Tests LDTs) as Clinical Lab Leaders Meet in New Orleans

Regulatory changes were the talk of the 29th Annual Executive War College, with attendees buzzing about Monday’s  US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement that it had finalized the rule on laboratory developed tests (LDTs). The timing was perfect at the first full day of the New Orleans event, which is focused on diagnostics, clinical laboratory, and pathology management, and featured a bevy of experts to walk the audience through the current state of the regulatory landscape.

“The timing of EWC with the release of this policy couldn’t be better,” CEO and founder of Momentum Consulting Valerie Palmieri told Dark Daily in an interview at Monday night’s opening reception. “It’s a great conference to not only catch up with colleagues but really hear and have those difficult discussions about where we are today, where we’re going, and where we need to be.”

Final LDT rule ‘radically’ different than draft

Tim Stenzel, MD, PhD, former director of the FDA’s Office of In Vitro Diagnostics called the finalized rule “radically different” from the proposed rule. In some ways it is less complex: “The bar is lower,” he said, noting that he was voicing his personal views and not those of the federal agency. “I was convinced that there would be lawsuits, but I’m now not sure if that’s advisable.”

Still, laboratory teams will have to parse the more than 500-page document to determine how the final rule relates to their specific circumstances. After that, it won’t be as challenging, Stenzel said.

His advice: First, read the rule. Second, reach out to FDA for help—he’s sure, he said, that the office is geared up to respond to a “ton of questions” about the implications for individual labs and are standing by to answer emails from labs. And, he added in a discussion session, emailing the agency is free.

The final rule will be in force 60 days after it’s published. Stenzel provided a timeline for some of the milestones:

1 Year: Comply with MD(AE) reporting and reporting of corrections and removals.

2 Years: Comply with labeling, registration and listing, and investigational use requirements.

3 Years: QS records and, in some cases, design controls and purchasing controls.

3.5 Years: Comply with high risk (class III) premarket review requirements.

4 Years: Comply with moderate and low-risk premarket review requirements.

 Lâle White, Executive Chair and CEO of XiFin, Inc.

Big changes bring big opportunities

Executive Chair and CEO of XiFin, Inc. Lâle White welcomed the audience with a morning keynote entitled “Big Changes in Healthcare” on new regulations and diagnostics players poised to reshape lab testing.

The diagnostics business is in constant flux, she noted, from payer requirements to greater regulatory and compliance burdens on labs. Other factors include the growing senior population and increasingly complex health conditions, rising costs throughout the healthcare ecosystem, falling funding and reimbursement, and staffing shortages.

As for the economic challenges, consumers are increasingly making decisions based on cost, convenience and quality. The population is shifting to Medicare advantage, which is more cost effective. But changes to the star ratings system will mean lower pay for payer organizations. Those companies will, in turn, mitigate their losses by making changes to pre-authorizations and tightening denials, even for clean claims.

Still, White said, more money isn’t the answer.

White urged the audience to use technology, including artificial intelligence and advances in genetic testing, to manage these and other industry changes.

“We need to optimize the tests we order,” she said. “And if we did that, lab diagnostics really has the potential to change the economics of health and improve outcomes.”

The FDA, Stenzel added, is “very interested” in stimulating innovation, building on the laboratory industry’s success in responding swiftly to the COVID pandemic and outbreaks of Monkey Pox, for example.

CDC: Laboratories on the front line of readiness

The pre-lunch events also included an update on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulations for clinical laboratories, featuring Reynolds Salerno, director of the division of laboratory systems at the CDC.

He shared lessons learned from recent public health emergencies, talked about CDC’s efforts to engage with clinical labs to improve future public health readiness and response and provided an overview of the CDC’s first laboratory-specific center.

“Laboratories are fundamental to public health,” he said. The industry is on the “front lines” when it comes to identifying threats, responding to them, and preparing for future responses.

Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of The Dark Report wrapped up the day’s regulatory discussions with a general session on the “regulatory trifecta” that includes the LDT final rule, CLIA regulations, and private payers’ policies for genetic claims.

–Gienna Shaw

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