Julia Dondero ’14 has been working behind-the-scenes to bring a new at-home self-collection kit for LabCorp’s COVID-19 diagnostic test into the hands of the health-care workers and first responders who need it the most.
Dondero leads the molecular diagnostics department at LabCorp’s Raritan, New Jersey, lab, where she was able to rapidly scale up and validate an at-home collection kit that was the first authorized for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd who is into biology, but when I first learned about the coronavirus, I immediately thought, ‘I have a feeling a few months from now, I’m going to be testing this by the thousands.’”
As the pandemic intensified with calls for more COVID-19 testing, Dondero has worked around the clock, overseeing the at-home collection kit’s validation on various platforms and running samples to ensure the accuracy of results at multiple test sites.
“Every day we’d get more information, better information, more sample types, a better understanding of the accuracy of the tests,” she says. “I have never seen anything grow this quickly before.”
On May 1, 2020, the at-home collection kits became available to health-care workers and first responders who may have been exposed to the virus or have coronavirus symptoms. They are now able to use at home a Q-tip-style cotton nasal swab to collect a fluid sample, which is then mailed to a lab for testing.
The FDA worked with LabCorp to ensure that results are as accurate as samples collected at a doctor’s office, hospital or other testing site. Self-sampling sidesteps the need for a clinician to perform the test, reducing their exposure to symptomatic patients. It also frees up personal protective equipment, which is in short supply. (Like all other COVID-19 tests on the market, the FDA authorized the test under its emergency use rules.)
LabCorp has released about 300,000 results, tests for the virus coming from the new at-home kits and hospitals, Dondero says.
Dondero’s contribution is the type of work that often goes unnoticed. “A lot of times we get sidelined or hear only the negatives about the lack of testing,” she says. “But it’s nice that recently I’ve seen a lot of us being recognized as our testing has ramped up across the country.”
The spotlight shined on Dondero in April when the American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA) featured her during Laboratory Professionals Week.
ACLA shared: “Julia has led the molecular diagnostics department at LabCorp’s Raritan, New Jersey, lab over the last several weeks with technical expertise and a calm disposition during a tense and trying time. Her admirable leadership and dedication to patient care enabled LabCorp to validate the company’s COVID-19 assay on three instruments in an extremely short period of time, while also supervising and training molecular employees and many additional volunteers.”
News of Dondero’s success reached Biology Professor John Gaynor, who mentored Dondero when she was an undergraduate student doing Molecular Biology research at Montclair State University.
“When I heard that she was instrumental in the initial development of coronavirus testing at LabCorp, I was not surprised. She has always been meticulous and detail oriented – just the kind of individual you want doing that work,” Gaynor says. “It makes me feel confident knowing that there are good scientists out there like Julia – that we trained at Montclair State – doing this important work.”
While at Montclair State, Dondero assisted Gaynor and Biology Professor Paul Bologna on a grant-supported project from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to study the jellyfish of Barnegat Bay.
Bologna’s lab does the field collection and ecological work, Gaynor’s lab does the molecular work, “primarily DNA extractions, PCR and DNA sequence analysis to identify unknown organisms,” Gaynor says. “Although Julia started doing the molecular work in my lab, she also wanted to experience the field component side. So, she started volunteering to work on the boat collecting samples and making measurements of water quality. Julia was a fast learner and very enthusiastic about the science.”
Her work is now far different from the study of jellyfish at the Jersey Shore. “My department usually handles chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes simplex, HIV and hepatitis C,” Dondero says. “We’re used to pipetting something that’s contagious. We already follow best practices for proper PPE. We always wear gloves, a lab coat, face shield or work under a hood.”
She says she’s taking extra precautions with the easily transmissible coronavirus: “When I get home, I don’t take any chances. I won’t even sit on the couch until I have showered and changed.”
– Marilyn Joyce Lehren