Newswise — What happens when a public health laboratory looks to a university for leadership? A unique partnership can form that benefits everyone. Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the New Jersey Department of Health have been working with each other for several years. But the formalized agreement that brought a member of the medical school’s faculty in as medical director of the laboratory is just a year old. The arrangement is already benefiting both.

The laboratory, which handles everything from rapid response emergencies to clinical testing to newborn screening, is a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) site. Thomas J. Kirn Jr., MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, assumed the role of medical director in 2017.

“Three major programs report to me,” Dr. Kirn says--The public health laboratory service, which provides clinical diagnostic and surveillance testing; the clinical lab improvement service, which handles inspections and protocol compliance; and the environmental chemical lab service, which is responsible for testing drinking water and groundwater, as well as handling environmental evaluations of pollutants, toxins, and heavy metals. He also supervises the testing of medicinal marijuana.

“We are involved in everything from disease response and surveillance to testing rabies in animals that have been interacting with humans to testing mosquitoes for West Nile and other viruses,” Dr. Kirn says.

The partnership between the medical school and the New Jersey Department of Health has been shepherded through its many stages by Chen Liu, MD, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, at both Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and New Jersey Medical School. Dr. Liu saw the unlimited potential of a collaboration with a state public health laboratory. “One of the missions of the medical school is to provide public service to the state and to the general public through outreach efforts,” Dr. Liu says. “I saw the benefit in working with the state to provide better-quality lab testing for the public health arena, while giving us multiple opportunities to enhance our educational activities.” 

Under Dr. Liu’s leadership, what began as two faculty members rotating to take on the responsibilities of a medical director has become a formalized full-time directorship responsible for entire laboratory operations. Dr. Liu has also spearheaded related activities, including opportunities for researching infectious diseases and the rotation of medical students and residents. Experiencing what it’s like to do public health testing in the state’s laboratory helps medical trainees learn how such labs play a role in the public health arena.

Dr. Kirn sees the advantages for the state. “On the flip side, sometimes public health laboratories work in a vacuum, not fully grasping the larger landscape of patient care,” he says. “I get to share a unique perspective on how the laboratory can add value to that.”

Currently, there are research opportunities being pursued in the area of infectious disease. Dr. Liu is personally involved in research on the Zika virus. “Things are in place, and we are excited to move forward on many initiatives,” Dr. Liu says.

The vision is to create intellectual and academic opportunities at the interface of public health and research. “This is not something that has been done,” Dr. Kirn says. “We have the advantage of access to unique patient materials and information that feeds our research opportunities.”

Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, an RWJBarnabas Health facility and the medical school’s principal affiliate, comprise one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers. Clinical services are provided by more than 500 faculty physicians in 200+ specialties and subspecialties as part of Rutgers Health, the clinical arm of Rutgers University. To learn more about Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, visit rwjms.rutgers.edu

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