Sioux Falls, SD
Technology is a big part of Sanford Bio Bank Lab Coordinator Timea Nelson's workday.
"I like to play with the robots," Nelson said.
The particular robot she likes to "play" with is one of the machines clinical researchers use in the Sanford Bio Bank. It precisely extracts individual DNA strands from a single blood sample.
"What we're doing in this room and throughout Sanford research is unlocking the genetic code," Vice President of Sanford Research David Pearce said.
In a day, the lab processes about 64 blood samples. Nelson said not so long ago they used to have to do this all by hand.
"Sometimes we joke about how robots will replace the actual people in the lab. It's, you have to look at it this way, it's making everything more efficient," Nelson said.
Nelson does not have to worry. This facility's staff has doubled in the last three years. Scientists and doctors from all over the world come to Sanford for clinical and genetic research.
"I was a geeky science, correction, I'm still a geeky scientist," Pearce said.
Though he pokes fun at himself, Pearce said what happens in this lab is no joke because everyday they get a better and closer look at individual pieces of DNA. That gives doctors a more clear idea of how their patients' bodies handle diseases like type one diabetes and breast cancer differently.
"Because cancers usually change, they're resistant. That's why many treatments don't work," Pearce said.
Many doctors now believe there is not a one-size fits all approach to battling a disease. Knowing your patient's genetic code can allow doctors to stay ahead of cancer and get closer to a cure. It also allows them to match the best treatment with the right patient. It's called 'personalized medicine.'
"In breast cancer in particular, many treatments are ineffective because they're not tied to the underlying mechanism of that parasite called cancer. By unlocking that code, we can devise the most appropriate treatment that person can respond to," Pearce said.
Pearce said within the next year Sanford will begin a clinical trial with certain cancer patients. The patients will get typical cancer treatments, along with tailor-made therapy based on that person's DNA. Sanford is also beginning a clinical trial for type one diabetes that will examine children. But treatment is not the entire focus because Pearce hopes this research leads to better disease detection and prevention for not only cancer and diabetes, but for every disease we face..
Though much of Nelson's and her colleague's days are about technology, the Sanford research labs goes way beyond robots.
"They have a connection, they have a family member that has a certain cancer or debilitating disease and they want to make a contribution to understand what happened to that family member or make sure it doesn't happen to other family members or other people," Pearce said.
"You know, you are working for a greater good, you are working for actual patients so they can get diagnoses, a resolution, or a cure," Nelson said.
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