Newly-minted molecular biologist Meghan Dolan probes cell lines for clues that could impact the course of the pandemic
Twenty-four-year-old molecular biologist Meghan Dolan, a Laboratory Technician II for Charles River’s Biologic Testing Solutions, can’t stay out of the lab. For sure, she enjoys the challenge of developing new tests for clients, but right now she has an even higher calling—the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vanquishing the SARS-CoV-2 virus has become the central goal of thousands of scientists the world over, some of whom have spent their careers bracing for moments such as this. For Meghan, fresh from a three-year master’s degree at Drexel University that she earned while working full-time at Charles River Laboratories, this pandemic has cast her job in a light she never truly imagined. To borrow a baseball analogy, she sometimes feels like that rookie player who steps up to the plate with the bases loaded, feeling a mixture of pride, excitement and nervousness.
“This is critical. I need to be there. When I look back, 10 or 20 years from now, I want to say I played a part in ending this thing,” says Meghan, who lives with her parents, sister and boyfriend in York Haven, PA, and does not want to see them fall victim to COVID-19.
Meghan is part of the Methods Development team based in both Malvern and Wayne, PA. Their role is to dig into the cells and cell lines that drug developers need to produce biologics like vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, recombinant proteins and other therapeutics produced from living organisms.
The works sounds a lot like a genealogist drilling down and down into person’s ancestry, except in this case what they are probing for are genetic sequences that act as a kind of fingerprint of potential contaminants. To do this they use a highly sensitive molecular technique called polymerase chain reaction or PCR that that uses custom-designed fluorescent tools to target and amplify targeted regions of an RNA or DNA sequence.
PCR technology has been in the news lately as the standard tool to diagnose SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, Meghan’s team is using PCR for a different kind of COVID-19 project.
They are using it to develop assays to screen starting and intermediate materials for biomanufacturing drugs in development as well as test final products in order to mitigate risks in the supply chains. Specifically, they have been tasked with designing and testing primers and probes for COVID-19 to test the materials that produce recombinant proteins—the active ingredient in many biological drugs. Primers are short known sequences of about 20 nucleotides that grab onto a particular piece of genetic material and stick to it like Velcro.
The probes are also fragments of DNA outfitted with fluorescent labels that can recognize the target nucleotides within the primer region. Once the genetic material is tagged and labeled, the PCR reaction can duplicate the material over and over, creating billions of new copies that ultimately will allow them to find the needle in the haystack and show whether the COVID-19 sequences are present. The information is critical before sending a drug, vaccine or treatment into clinical trials.
Typically it takes at least a month to get an assay ready for validation, but time is not a luxury under COVID-19. So Meghan and her colleague Suzanna Au, assigned to test the primers and probes, donned their white lab coats and worked 10-12 hour days. They huddled under a biological safety cabinet, but in staggered shifts to ensure they remained socially distanced. Meghan is proud to say they finished their part of the project in about two weeks.
“At any given time walking into the lab I am facing several feelings,” says Meghan. “Pride in my work and our mission at Charles River and pride that I have the knowledge and skills to perform the work. I am excited to see the results of my experiments and the tangible outcome of what I have done.”