A postdoc's sharp ears and technical expertise played a pivotal role in a medical advance that stopped the lethal "superbug" that killed 11 patients at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, according to the Washington Post. As reported in an August 2012 article in Science Translational Medicine, sophisticated whole-genome sequencing combined with bioinformatics allowed a multidisciplinary NIH team to identify the antibiotic-resistant strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae, track its course from patient to patient and through hospital equipment, and ultimately end the outbreak.
In 2011, in the midst of what then looked like an intractable and mysterious infestation, bioinformatics researcher Evan Snitkin, a postdoc in the lab of human microbiome researcher Julie Segre at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), "overheard colleagues in the microbiology lab at [NHGRI] discuss the outbreak," the Post reports. Next, "he approached his boss, Segre." He told her, "I bet I can figure it out with DNA," Segre says, quoted in the Post. "No one had sequenced a current health crisis before."
Segre took the suggestion to physician Tara Palmore, the Clinical Center's deputy epidemiologist, who was struggling to understand and stem a contagion that was defeating all the hospital's existing infection control measures. They quickly teamed up, the sequencing was done, and Snitkin devised the algorithm that revealed how the organism entered and traveled through the Clinical Center. This permitted the hospital to adopt the measures that stopped it. It also won Snitkin first authorship on the widely-heralded paper.
Now Segre, Palmore, Snitkin, and physician David Henderson, who collaborated with Palmore on infection control, are finalists for the prestigious Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, one of the very highest awards a federal government employee can win. Their "groundbreaking advance in one hospital … will now have an impact across the world and will become the standard," says NIH Director Francis Collins in the article announcing the nomination.