April 28, 2020

The priceless notebook of Mr. Price

A vital ingredient for COVID testing was unavailable anywhere. Then Howard Price remembered a recipe in an old notebook.

Mr. Howard Price, a 60-year employee of VUMC who works in Microbiology, in the lab at The Vanderbilt Clinic.

Howard Price and the notebook containing the recipe for a vital ingredient for COVID-19 testing. Photo by Susan Urmy

Howard Price, technical supervisor in Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, has a decades-old green notebook he keeps on a shelf at work.

The notebook has loose-leaf typed pages, a little faded with time and with scrawled notations in the margins. Another sign of the book’s age is a notation at the bottom of a page that the contents were “written prior to 1983,” a way of saying that what’s here was copied from an even earlier source of indeterminate age.

“Sometimes holding onto something like this for a long time can really turn out good.”

Price, who has worked at Vanderbilt since 1959, safeguarded that notebook, and it proved a lifesaver when, in the rush for supplies to test for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the whole world encountered a shortage of a critical laboratory supply.

Adam Seegmiller, MD, PhD, executive medical director of the VUMC Clinical Laboratories, explains: “We ran out of viral transport media – the liquid used to put the swabs in when they’re collected  for testing – very early on in the process, and we couldn’t get any more.”

“Howard Price actually had a recipe in an old notebook, and he and his team have made thousands of vials of it from that recipe. They really saved the day.”

Howard Price’s notebook is full of lab processes and how-tos, including a recipe for viral transport media (VTM) that proved invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Susan Urmy

Over his 60-years-and-counting career at Vanderbilt, Price has overseen the handmade development of many forms of culture media – fungal, bacterial, mycobacterial and viral – all critical components of research and diagnostic processes. And when he heard the world was running out of viral transport media, or VTM, he remembered the notebook. Inside, he found a critical recipe for VTM, dating from his early years working with the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Department.

 VTM is a balanced mixture of several chemicals, including Hanks Balanced Salt Solution (HBSS), Gentamicin sulfate and penicillin. Each component must be added in exactly the right concentration, and the mix must pass stringent sterility tests. Once prepared, the VTM is dispensed into sterile, capped tubes which are then individually labeled and stored carefully before use. When a swab specimen is taken at a testing site, the swab is inserted into the tube filled with VTM. The tubes can then be safely transported to the laboratory where testing can occur.

“We’ve been buying VTM for years commercially, but when all of this happened, everyone throughout the country was ordering a lot more of it than they normally do,” Price said.

“I’m just lucky I was here at the time and was able to locate this procedure for making VTM that I did a long time ago.”

“Everyone was pitching in, and it was just something that had to be done.”

Price quickly called in members of Pharmaceutical Services and everyone he could gather from the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology to assist with creating the VTM, piping it into tubes and labeling the tubes so they were ready for deployment to testing sites. As each business day ended, postdoctoral fellows volunteered to keep working on the VTM until midnight.

“When we first started, we made 4,000 to 5,000 tubes of VTM in less than a week’s time. We’re still making it, but it’s slowed down to about 800 tubes a day,” Price said.

“At our busiest, we had about 15-20 people working together on this,” Price said. “Everyone was pitching in, and it was just something that had to be done. This happened so quick; it was just about overnight. This was some great team work.”

Price chuckled when asked if he ever thought an old notebook from way back when would come in so handy.

“You know, I just decided to keep it on hand just in case I ever needed something to go back on,” he said. “Sometimes holding onto something like this for a long time can really turn out good.”

A team of about 20 VUMC employees worked nearly around the clock to create viral transport media (VTM) for COVID-19 testing from a recipe in Howard Price’s notebook. A few team members include Lab Technician Sean Benner, Lab Technician Bruce Abram, Price (front), Medical Director of the VUMC Molecular Infectious Diseases Laboratory Jonathan Schmitz, MD, PhD (back), Medical Lab Scientist Edie Sannella, Medical Lab Scientist Sharon Glover and Medical Lab Scientist Trey Malone. Photo by Susan Urmy