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Dr. Andrew Gardner, Scientific Director of the Molecular Enzymology Research Division at New England Biolabs, was a recent guest speaker at the Manchester Essex High School Sci-Talk series.  The school’s science team vice president, Amy Vytopilova, joined Charlotte Lawrence in interviewing Dr. Gardner about his work in enzymology, the science behind COVID-19 tests and how his “back up plan” led him to a fascinating and fulfilling career.

Welcome Dr. Gardner, please tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Beverly but lived in Boston after college for many years.  When it was time for the kids to go to school we moved back to the North Shore to Manchester where we have been very happy.  During my free time, I enjoy boating, lobstering, going to the beach and coaching my kids' sports teams.  I am the Scientific Director of the Molecular Enzymology Research Division at New England Biolabs (NEB) in Ipswich.  I also enjoy helping to teach the New England Biolabs Molecular Biology Summer Workshop where people come to learn for two weeks.

Can you share with us the schooling that you had which led you to your current position at New England Biolabs?

I went to Middlebury College where I majored in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and minored in Spanish.  During the summer, I interned at New England Biolabs doing a research project.  After college, I wanted to go to medical school but was rejected (one of the best things that happened to me).  Instead, I started a much more interesting and fun career in biotechnology as a researcher at NEB.  While continuing to work at NEB, I received a Master's Degree in Biology at Harvard Extension School then a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology at Boston University.

Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is enzymology and can you describe its relevance to our everyday lives?

Enzymes are the proteins that do the work in our cells such as maintaining normal cell growth, producing energy and storing genetic information.  I study how the enzymes in your cells copy genomic DNA during cell division and how enzymes repair DNA when it is damaged by sunlight or other toxins.  Understanding how enzymes work is a first step in understanding biology and how defective enzymes may lead to disease.  In addition, enzymes can be used as tools in new molecular technologies such as diagnostic tests and DNA sequencing.  Every time you have a nucleic acid diagnostic test or get your DNA sequenced at 23andme or Ancestry.com, enzymes are the engines that power those technologies.  One of our goals at New England Biolabs is to discover new enzymes, understand how they work and help our customers apply enzymes in new technologies.

Speaking of new technologies, how do COVID-19 rapid tests work? What are the recent developments that have allowed us to test for COVID-19 via kits we can use at home?

At home tests need to be simple to use, accurate and easy to understand a positive or negative result.  Over the past 10 years, advances in biochemistry, engineering, and computer science have culminated in development of simple and effective tests to be used by anyone including at home.  There are several types of diagnostic tests: Antigen tests and nucleic acid molecular tests. Antigen tests detect the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid proteins usually from a nasal swab.  Antigen tests are fast and easy to use but are less sensitive than nucleic acid detection tests however are an important tool to detect active infections.  Nucleic acid tests such as RT-PCR or RT-LAMP detect the SARS-CoV-2 genome from a nasal swab or saliva and are very sensitive.  Nucleic acids tests are useful to detect lower amounts of SARS-CoV-2.  Both antigen and nucleic acid tests will continue to be important tools to track and monitor SARS-CoV-2 both at home and in the doctor's office.

Why are rapid tests less precise? What are the causes of the decreased accuracy?

The rapid antigen tests are very precise and accurate and extremely reliable for detecting infectious people.  Molecular nucleic acid tests are much more sensitive and can catch earlier stage infections before people are spreading and are more reliable for clinical diagnostics.  Typically, molecular nucleic acid tests require labs and sophisticated instruments ... until now, thanks to awesome new technologies and enzymes from places like New England Biolabs.  For more information about testing, I would suggest referring to the FDA.gov website lots of great information about test accuracy and the latest test sensitivity metrics!

How does the work you do at New England Biolabs adapt to viruses mutating, as we are seeing with the new COVID-19 variant?

Nucleic acid tests like RT-PCR specifically detect the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA.  Mutations or changes in the viral genome led to new viral strains like Omicron.  Scientists around the world are keeping tabs on all the emerging SARS-CoV-2 mutations to make sure that the diagnostic tests are not impacted by these changes.  If necessary, the diagnostic kits can be rapidly updated to detect any variant.  More information about the ways that New England Biolabs is helping to keep ahead of detecting SARS-CoV-2 can be found at www.neb.com/COVID19.

What would people be surprised to know about working at New England Biolabs?

A couple of fun facts!  First, it is notable that New England Biolabs is a world-class biotechnology company and it’s right here in our backyard.  Also, the company’s campus is around 160 acres, and the original buildings are actually a mansion that was built as a summer home in the 1900s.  And, NEB’s own Chief Scientific Officer, Rich Roberts, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for his discovery of split genes.  And finally - New England Biolabs draws employees from all over the world, making it a very diverse workplace.

Charlotte Lawrence is a junior at Manchester Essex Regional High School.  As the school district’s student health ambassador, she seeks to raise awareness about issues that impact the health of our students and community

 

Charlotte Lawrence is the Health Ambassador for Manchester Essex Regional High School and exploring medical issues for The Cricket. You can reach her by sending email to news@thecricket.com