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  • Shared Hospital Laboratory (SHL), which performs COVID-19 testing for six Toronto hospitals, has successfully implemented a new specimen transport medium that has cleared a weeks-long testing backlog
  • The new transport medium, called the McMaster Molecular Medium (MMM), was developed by researchers at The Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton
  • The MMM inactivates the virus at the point of collection, removing a major bottleneck for labs processing COVID-19 tests. St. Joe’s hopes to implement the MMM across Ontario.

One of Ontario’s busiest clinical laboratories has successfully implemented a robust molecular test for COVID-19 and a novel specimen transport media – called the McMaster Molecular Medium (MMM) – both developed by scientists at The Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton. Shared Hospital Laboratory (SHL), responsible for processing clinical tests for six Toronto hospitals, was an early adopter of St. Joe’s newly developed innovations in all six of their hospitals and respective COVID-19 assessment centres and is now processing a record number of daily clinical specimens.

Specimen Tubes containing the McMaster Molecular Medium

Building capacity for the number of specimens that can be processed safely and accurately by clinical labs relies on a collection of protocols and materials designed to work well together at every stage of testing. This includes the chemical reagents used in high-throughput robotic systems in the laboratory, as well as materials in the assessment centres such as swabs, collection tubes, and the transport media – the liquid contained in the sample collection tube that preserves the specimen.

“Early in the pandemic, we were receiving specimens in nearly a dozen different types of transport media and tube formats,” said Dr. Christie Vermeiren, a clinical microbiologist and deputy director of SHL. “This meant that each sample needed to be preprocessed in a biosafety cabinet, the virus inactivated, and the sample transferred into a standardized tube format before processing.”

As the number of samples arriving in the labs increased, the need to manually inactivate each specimen began to cause bottlenecks across the province. With existing transport media, SHL’s throughput was limited by the number of available biosafety cabinets and the need for staff to preprocess the samples. 

Thankfully, the new McMaster Molecular Medium can eliminate this bottleneck. Developed by Dr. David Bulir, Ms. Sylvia Chong, and Dr. Bulir’s team at St. Joe’s in Hamilton, the MMM was designed to increase lab safety and reduce processing time. The MMM is optimized for high-throughput liquid handling automation as well as sample pooling to further increase throughput. St. Joe’s researchers have been using the MMM for a number of COVID-19 research projects, including recent studies with the Shelter Health Network and with arriving international passengers at Pearson Airport. 

Dr. David Bulir, pictured above, is conducting research on COVID-19 testing at The Research Institute of St. Joe's Hamilton

“Prior to implementing the MMM, SHL struggled to complete 3,500 to 4,000 tests per day,” said Dr. Vermeiren. “We rolled out the revamped workflow, eliminated the preprocessing bottleneck, and redeployed staff. The following day we completed just over 5,200 tests and then 6,500 tests the day after that – all with our existing staff complement. It’s a win-win-win.”

Technical staff have described the MMM as a “game changer” for labs that continue to face high demand for COVID-19 testing.

“If other labs in Ontario use the MMM to address workflow challenges, it will make a significant impact,” said Dr. Vermeiren. “SHL was able to clear a backlog of several weeks in just 48 hours upon implementation of this new medium.”

Multiple labs across the province are already using the COVID-19 PCR test designed by Dr. Bulir in January, and many have also evaluated the MMM in their labs. In September, Bay Area Health Trust announced that they had signed an exclusive licensing agreement for the MMM and have been working diligently to scale its production to further increase access to this technology for public and private organizations.

Funding to develop the MMM was provided by the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund and the Juravinski Research Institute, with internal support from St. Joe’s. Widespread COVID-19 testing continues to face supply chain pressure and The Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton continues to work with the province to address these issues and create innovative solutions.

“The story of the MMM is a one of cross-institutional collaboration and dedication. Our collaborators at SHL have been with us every step of the way as we worked to develop and deploy both the COVID-19 test and the MMM,” said Dr. Bulir. “Our partners at Bay Area Health Trust have moved mountains to get production of the MMM scaled to meet growing demand. These efforts, and the dedication of my team at St. Joe’s, have made a significant impact to COVID-19 testing in our province.”



Media Contacts:

  • Mike Beattie (Research Communications Officer, The Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton):
  • Leigh Duncan (Executive Director, Communications and Public Affairs, Scarborough Health Network):


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