State scientists saving lives every day
By SHERRY HALBROOK
Sometimes there is a world right under your nose, but you never know it’s there. Or you have heard of it, but you never guessed at how important or amazing it is.
That was the reaction PEF leaders had when they toured three of the five state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center laboratories in Albany June 20. They visited the Dr. David Axelrod Institute, the Center for Medical Sciences and Biggs Laboratory.
“I am very glad I had the opportunity to visit Wadsworth Center and learn about the work our members do there,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “It gave me great insight into the extremely high level of services our members at Wadsworth provide to the citizens of New York state. Many New Yorkers never know all the amazing things they do there to protect us.”
Wadsworth was founded in 1914 by Augustus Wadsworth to research the great killers of that time: diphtheria, smallpox and cholera. A century later, it is still on the frontlines of research, testing and screening, all aimed at keeping the people of New York as healthy and safe as possible from threats that range from rabies and West Nile virus to chemical contamination of drinking water and drug resistant TB.
For instance, PEF members at Wadsworth screen 250,000 newborn babies every year for 47 rare disorders, including some that are fatal if not discovered and treated within the first 24 hours after the child is born.
Whether the threat to public health is anthrax, Zika virus or the latest strains of influenza, Wadsworth Center scientists are studying it and working, often around the clock, to give New Yorkers the best possible information and opportunities to protect themselves. And those life-saving insights aren’t just helping New Yorkers. Wadsworth’s internationally acclaimed scientists publish nearly 200 articles on their findings in professional journals every year.
PEF members make up many of the 700 staff at Wadsworth Center and have helped to attain the more than 100 patents the researchers have earned in the past 25 years.
“They are unsung heroes, because they are saving our lives and we don’t even know it,” said PEF Region 8 Coordinator Michael Blue, who accompanied Spence on the tour. “Our members and the others they work with are doing fantastic work. We have some brilliant people there doing very impressive work.”
Blue said he was impressed to find PEF members in key roles at Wadsworth. For instance Wadsworth Deputy Director Victoria Derbyshire is a research scientist 6 and a member of PEF, as is her husband, Keith Derbyshire, who directs the Wadsworth Division of Genetics.
Scientist Amy DeMarco represents PEF members at the lab on the union’s Executive Board and helped to set up the tour for the PEF leaders.
“This tour brought to the forefront that government science saves lives,” DeMarco said. “I was honored that Wadsworth Director Dr. Jill Taylor invited President Spence for a tour.
“It’s very different to talk to someone about what they do, versus seeing, listening and learning about the critical jobs they do for the public,” DeMarco said. “I wish more decision-makers had the ability to recognize this, so that needed staff, programs, and proper working environments would be funded. There is a lack of understanding in some sectors of how critical our scientific community is.
“Although the PEF leaders viewed just a glimpse of the work at Wadsworth, they got to see the newborn screening staff in action, who test approximately 1,000 babies a day for 47 different disorders. They learned about new technologies that reduce diagnostic testing for cystic fibrosis by 81 percent. They saw hands-on research and testing in antimicrobial resistance. They saw a variety of laboratories utilizing sensitive state-of-the-art instrumentation to discover and test for chemicals. They were hands-on with tick-borne disease research and development, medical marijuana investigation for synthetics, PFOA/PFOS (emerging contaminants) testing in drinking water and blood samples, and they visited the Nuclear Chemistry Lab where they learned about the staff’s preparedness and readiness to respond to potential nuclear accidents or terrorism threats.”
However, Wadsworth and the PEF members who work there cannot continue to work at the very forefront of their scientific investigations unless they have the state-of-the art facilities and equipment required to support their work.
“Scientists require connections with clinical scientists and collaboration with environmental scientists through research and testing. Research and Public Health services protect our bodies, our drinking water, our air, our environment, and the spaces we live in. As technology progresses the need to adapt to change is necessary. One can only go so far to retrofit or patch infrastructure before it becomes more of a liability than an asset,” DeMarco said.
That is why the state budget this year includes $150 million to pursue the creation of a new life sciences campus that would allow for greatly improved, safe and efficient work and collaboration among the Wadsworth scientists and the private and academic researchers with whom they share their investigations.
The new facilities would not just help Wadsworth protect the public health and identify and understand emerging threats, they would ensure the safety of the PEF members and other employees who work with deadly and dangerous toxins, viruses, and bacteria every day.
PEF members have both their health and their careers at stake here, so the union joins the state in its commitment to always advancing the health and safety of all New Yorkers.