NMRFAM assists local company in screening for lethal heparin contamination

Photo of 900mHz NMR magnet

When a heparin scare nearly brought a Wisconsin drug manufacturer's work to a grinding halt earlier this year, only a few places in the country could offer the kind of help the company needed to get going again.

Fortunately, one of them was just down the road on UW-Madison's campus.

Known as the National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison (NMRFAM), the research lab occupies a breathtakingly expansive room in the basement of the Biochemistry Addition building. There, it houses several large machines, known as NMR spectrometers, that can be used to study the structure of molecules in fine detail. Too big and expensive for most labs to own and operate, the machines are used by academic and industry researchers seeking to understand human health and disease.

That's exactly the position that Scientific Protein Laboratories, of Waunakee, Wis., found itself in earlier this year. The company produces the active ingredient in heparin, a widely used drug that thins blood. But after contaminated heparin was blamed for causing more than 80 deaths and severe allergic reactions around the world, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered more rigorous testing of all heparin supplies to ensure their purity. For SPL, that meant finding an NMR spectrometer.

"From one moment to the next, SPL found itself in a very difficult position," explained David Strunce, president and chief executive officer of SPL, in a letter. "We had hundreds of lots of heparin sodium to test by NMR and no possibility to do it in-house."

SPL placed an urgent call to Madison's NMR lab. Although typically the facility's machines, as well as the expertise of its staff, are booked months in advance, NMRFAM staff scrambled to accommodate the request. "Once the staff realized what the company was trying to do, we helped them set up their screen on one of the more readily available low-field NMR spectrometers, so they could have immediate access to a large block of time," says Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniel, NMRFAM's program administrator. The smaller machine saved time — and money, too, since time on higher-powered machines costs more.

Strunce praised the NMRFAM team's response in a letter to Milo Westler, NMRFAM's director: "The FDA was pushing for information immediately and your facility was the only one that could help us In spite of your already busy schedule, you worked with us to get us time (on an NMR machine) to run the samples we needed to meet the requests of the FDA."

"Without this accommodation," wrote Strunce, "we would have been unable to meet the FDA deadlines."

NMRFAM receives funding from the National Center for Research Resources, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the National Science Foundation, UW-Madison and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

By Nicole Miller
CALS Communication