Mike the Mad Biologist

Valuable Microbiological Archive Destroyed

Because of bureaucratic infighting, a valuable repository of microbiological specimens spanning over twenty years of collection was destroyed. Researchers, including the Mad Biologist, want to know why (italics mine); you can sign the petition here:

Scientists Call for Inquiry into Destruction of Microbes in VA Special Pathogens Laboratory

233 scientists and physician researchers from 27 countries have collectively expressed outrage over the destruction of an irreplaceable collection of microbes numbering in the thousands. The collection included Legionella bacteria (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease) and many other species of pathogens causing disease in humans including antibiotic resistant strains of Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, fungi, etc. The scientific collection had been accumulated over 25 years from numerous international studies by Victor L. Yu M.D., Professor of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Janet E. Stout Ph.D., Director, Special Pathogens Laboratory and scientific researchers throughout the world.

Members of the infectious disease community have now petitioned congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System to conduct an independent investigation of the Pittsburgh VA administration and its role in the destruction of these valuable research materials. The following prominent physicians have headed the petition drive: Dr. David Snydman, Chief of Infectious Diseases, Tufts University Boston, MA, Dr. Elias Anaissie, Chief, Division of Cancer Supportive Care, University of Arkansas Medical Center, Little Rock, AK and Dr. George Sarosi, Professor of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine and former Chief of Medicine at the VA Medical Center, Indianapolis, IN. The signatories of the petition included physicians and researchers from 30 states and 27 countries. Interestingly, the largest single contingency was 47 VA physicians from 31 VA healthcare facilities. Some of these VA investigators participated in a recently published study of hospital-acquired Legionnaires’ disease authored by Drs. Yu and Stout. As a result of this study, the VA is now revising its policy regarding the prevention of this waterborne disease. The Pittsburgh VA administration destroyed all the Legionella isolates, including those collected from patients and water sources from this VA-supported study. According to one signatory, this action “is just appalling ignorance and irresponsibility”. Dr. Anaissie stated “The destruction of this treasure trove of pathogens is a scientific disaster. The tragedy is that the actions of those that gave the order for destruction are completely ignorant about the seriousness of this breach of trust and the implications for all patients – including VA patients.”

In a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pittsburgh VA justified the action by stating that the specimens were unlabelled, a claim that Drs. Yu and Stout reject. Dr. Yu noted that “These specimens were shared with other scientists from around the world, something impossible to do if they were not meticulously catalogued.” Moreover, the Pittsburgh VA Research Department was ready to release the collection to a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Drs. Stout and Yu were assured that the VA would facilitate the transfer. Only later was it disclosed that the collection had been destroyed without even informing Drs. Yu and Stout.

And in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the organizers of the petition explain more about why this is so disastrous (italics mine):

The Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs (VA) Special Pathogens Laboratory, headed by Victor Yu, MD, and Janet E. Stout, PhD, was terminated by the Pittsburgh VA administration in July 2007, under protest from Dr. Yu. During the administrative dispute, the collection of clinical specimens and microbiological isolates obtained by investigators from around the world were destroyed. These materials were collected as part of numerous prospective observational studies and infection control-related studies. For almost 30 years, Drs. Yu and Stout set the standards for our understanding of the epidemiology of Legionella infection, as well as for our understanding of the control of environmental Legionella infection.

Dr. Yu also established a series of national and international collaborations to elucidate our understanding of the microbiological and clinical management issues of bacteremia due to many different organisms. These studies were seminal in many respects. They changed our understanding of the relationship between appropriate and inappropriate therapy, the relationship between the MICs of isolates and outcome, the molecular epidemiology of relapse and reinfection, and the relatedness of strains throughout the world. The studies are far too numerous to articulate in detail or even to list here in total, but they include studies of the major pathogens that confound us today, including Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing Klebsiella pneumoniae, Enterobacter species, Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, Enterococcus species, Bacteroides fragilis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Candida species. The concept was simple: observe the clinical presentation of bacteremia or fungemia, and follow outcomes while correlating the microbiology to the outcome. The studies were all prospective, and the isolates were collected and sent to a central laboratory for more-definitive analysis. Each of the studies emanating from this collection has changed our knowledge base and has contributed significantly toward optimal treatment of patients with these infections. Moreover, the careers of a number of prominent academicians were launched when they coordinated these large-scale studies and had the opportunity to analyze the data as trainees.

Capturing the isolates and making sure they were sent to the laboratory was an important and difficult task–especially for fastidious organisms like S. pneumoniae and Bacteroides species. Given the international component, as well the requirements for sending specimens across national borders, these studies were difficult to perform. All studies were approved in accordance with local institutional review board requirements, and permits were obtained from regulatory authorities. Nevertheless, the number of studies and important insights total >100 peer-review articles (see References for selected articles) and have provided important information that correlates outcome with the use of certain antibiotic classes, as well as levels of susceptibility. Some of the studies challenged prevailing dogma and helped provide data for the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute.

All of these isolates, many of which were still being studied, were destroyed. The samples were incinerated without warning or notification to Drs. Yu and Stout, such that it became an irrevocable action. These isolates were accrued purely for the advancement of science, and the beneficiaries of these studies were the patients infected with these microbes. Moreover, these isolates and samples would have proven to be invaluable in the future, because having these strains would enable comparison over time, for changes in pathogen virulence, antimicrobial susceptibility correlation with outcome, and changing genetic diversity, as well as the development of new molecular tests. Their destruction can by no means be considered to be justifiable. Add your name to the petition or review details at the Call for Inquiry Web site (http://www.legionella.org/vaspl.asp

).

Incidentally, “change in pathogen virulence” is also known as evolution. What’s so pathetic is that this seems to be entirely due to bureaucratic pettiness. People need to lose their jobs over this.

Comments

  1. #1 Duae Quartunciae
    March 27, 2008

    This is an appalling story… but a fairly old one as far as I can see. Have there been recent developments to account for a flurry of comment appearing in March 2008? Is this because of the advance online release of an article in the April 1 2008 issue of “Clinical Infectious Diseases”, which includes a petition?

    The timeline of events is not particularly clear to me. The pages at http://www.legionella.org/ concerning this matter are not particularly well put together. I think one simple and practical step would be to get hold of someone who can design a simple and clear presentation of the webpage to set out the details better. The front page could have a link to this story, and the actual presentation of the story at http://www.legionella.org/vasplhome.asp redesigned.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    March 28, 2008

    Wanton destruction of people’s hard work and labor? Throwing away work that could save live? This is horrible!!

    I signed it and posted about it too.

  3. #3 DrugMonkey
    March 28, 2008

    “administrative dispute” eh? the collection was to be moved to another institute you say?

    it was about the money. this had to do with who was going to pay for storing and securing the samples. look into it and I bet there will be a loss of external funding, some new regulations requiring expensive upgrades to the storage or something similar having to do with the money at root of this…

  4. #4 AggieMicro
    March 30, 2008

    Let’s have the names of the genius bureaucrats who ordered these archival collections destroyed. Their salaries are paid for by our hard earned tax dollars. They should have their butts hauled up to Congress to explain. If baseball players who did steroids 10 years ago are such a big deal, this is 100 times more important. Specific strains have unique genetic traits that can directly help clinical studies. It’s a shame that basic microbiology is being minimized (in this case, incinerated!) by society just when we need it the most.

  5. #5 drdrA
    March 31, 2008

    Mike-

    This is shocking indeed…. I am especially horrified as a former devotee of the study of basic biology of Legionella…

    Microbiologists kicked in the teeth AGAIN.

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