A team of scientists from the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Clinical Center have received a Service to America Medal for their efforts to protect patients from infections with drug-resistant bacteria. They demonstrated a new way to trace transmission routes using cutting-edge genomic techniques and infection control that will help hospitals facing similar crises in the future.
In 2011, the team investigated a cluster of infections so severe that it claimed the lives of several seriously ill patients enrolled in clinical trials at the Clinical Center. The Partnership for Public Service—which grants the Service to America or “Sammie” medals—awarded them the Federal Employee of the Year designation for their dedication and innovation in the face of daunting conditions. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough presented the award to the team at a ceremony on Oct. 3.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (l) presented the Federal Employee of the Year Award to (from l) Dr. Julie Segre, Dr. Evan Snitkin, Dr. Tara Palmore and Dr. David Henderson.
Photo: Sam Kittner/kittner.com
The NIH team includes Dr. Julie Segre, senior investigator in the Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch, NHGRI; Dr. Evan Snitkin, postdoctoral fellow in Segre’s laboratory; Dr. Tara Palmore, deputy hospital epidemiologist at the Clinical Center; and Dr. David Henderson, deputy director for clinical care and associate director for quality assurance and hospital epidemiology at the CC.
“Drs. Segre, Snitkin, Palmore and Henderson each applied their respective expertise to work together as a team at a critical time, making an important contribution to establishing safer health care settings,” said NHGRI director Dr. Eric Green. “Their work effectively demonstrates how genome sequencing technologies can play a central role in battles against antibiotic-resistant microbes.”
Bacteria are ubiquitous and prolific, turning out a new generation every hour. Their genetic material, or DNA, can undergo alterations in that process, enabling a subset of the bacteria to survive even after being exposed to antibiotics designed to halt infection. Some defiantly robust bacteria have become even more dangerous due to this resistance, especially for patients with compromised immune systems.
In the summer of 2011, Clinical Center staff first detected carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae (KPC) harbored by an intensive care unit patient. The bacteria gained the upper hand for a span of months, becoming resistant to almost every form of antibiotic. Tragically, seven patients whose immune systems had been suppressed died from their infections.
Two of the researchers—Segre and Snitkin—work in a basic research laboratory where they study the genomes of microbes. Palmore and Henderson manage infection control at the Clinical Center. The team seized the opportunity to work together in the midst of the KPC outbreak, adding state-of-the-art genome sequencing and analysis of bacterial DNA to the hospital’s rigorous surveillance routines, which are unsurpassed in the country. Through tireless vigilance and ingenuity in tracking the transmission of the bacteria—and with the cooperation of colleagues and care-giving staff—the outbreak was brought under control.
President Obama (l) visits with Sammie finalists and winners in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 23.
White House Photo: Pete Souza
The NIH team gathered their data and documented their experience in a paper published in Science Translational Medicine in August 2012. The publication has generated an important dialogue and intense interest throughout the nation about the problem of antibiotic resistance and transmission of potentially dangerous bacteria in the health care setting. Members of the team also have shared their research experience across the country in print and broadcast media interviews and lectures, helping the public understand the challenges that exist in infection control.
The team’s use of bacterial genome sequencing proved to be a novel and effective way to trace the precise route of bacterial transmission. The technique also revealed that patients who do not display symptoms may play a role in transmission. The collaboration between CC infection control experts and NHGRI genomics researchers ultimately demonstrated that microbial genome sequencing is a formidable tracking tool for hospital surveillance.
“Dr. Snitkin and I are honored to be acknowledged for our work,” said Segre. “The partnership with our courageous collaborators at the Clinical Center was crucial for this achievement.” The team has dedicated this award to the patients who died during the outbreak, she said.
Both the Employee of the Year team and Sammie finalists Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, and NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow were invited to meet President Obama at the White House on Oct. 23.
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals pay tribute to America’s dedicated federal workforce, highlighting those who have made significant contributions to our country. Honorees are chosen based on their commitment and innovation, as well as the impact of their work on addressing the needs of the nation. To read more about the Sammies, go to http://servicetoamericamedals.org/SAM/index.shtml.