Newborn screening director honored

Anne Marie Comeau receives prestigious global award

By Tom Lyons

Commonwealth Medicine, UMass Medical School

May 30, 2013
Anne Comeau (center) receives the 2013 Dr. Harry Hannon Award (left) Dr. Harry Hannon, Emeritus (Retired) chief, Newborn Screening Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and (right) Jelili Ojodu, director, Newborn Screening and Genetics at the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Anne Marie Comeau, PhD, deputy director of the New England Newborn Screening Program and professor of pediatrics, has been awarded the 2013 Harry Hannon Laboratory Improvement Award in Newborn Screening.

The Hannon Award is an international tribute, presented annually to a person judged by a selection committee to have made significant contributions to improving the quality of laboratory results for the newborn screening system. The award is named for Dr. Harry Hannon, a pioneer in newborn screening and the former chief of newborn screening for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The award was presented earlier this month in Atlanta by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), at a meeting held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of newborn screening by national and international professional organizations.

“What a tremendous honor and recognition of Dr. Comeau’s years of dedicated research and service,” said Joyce A. Murphy, executive vice chancellor for Commonwealth Medicine. “Her work, and the work of the entire team at the New England Newborn Screening Program touches the lives of countless children in New England and around the world. On behalf of the entire UMass Medical School community, I offer my heartfelt congratulations for this well-deserved award.”

Comeau, who has worked with the New England Newborn Screening Program since 1988, was nominated by colleagues from across the country—including a nomination from Hannon himself.

“I am so honored. It’s a humbling experience to receive recognition awarded by people for whom I have great respect and admiration, all the while knowing that ‘it takes a village’ to do this work,” said Comeau. “In addition to thanking the nomination and selection committees, I want to thank my colleagues at the New England Newborn Screening Program, especially our director, Dr. Roger Eaton. Any contributions I have made have been assisted greatly by the support and shared commitment of our entire team.”

The APHL cited Comeau’s significant role in the advancement of newborn screening in the United States. The association highlighted her tireless research efforts on severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) detection, the first screen to require a high-throughput DNA-based test and the first screen to include the discipline of clinical immunology.

SCID is a rare genetic disorder in which affected children have no resistance to infection by bacteria or viruses. The syndrome is often fatal if not detected early in a child’s life. When detected by newborn screening, SCID infants are successfully treated with bone marrow transplants.

Comeau’s SCID work involved both laboratory development and the formation of a multidisciplinary SCID newborn screening work group.

The APHL noted that her research played an integral role in the decision by an advisory panel to the secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to endorse including SCID screening into the Recommended Uniform Screening Panel for all newborns.

The New England Newborn Screening Program, part of the Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division, provides newborn screening services for several states, including Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Pennsylvania. The program also assists with several international projects. Samples from up to 2,000 newborns arrive daily from hospitals throughout the region for testing that may change the course of any one of these babies’ lives.

One of the first programs of its kind, the New England Newborn Screening Program integrates testing, research and clinical epidemiology to provide sound, actionable results and interpretation for pediatric providers and families.

The New England Newborn Screening Program’s work in Massachusetts is authorized by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health; both organizations are recognized for the official establishment of statewide newborn screening in 1962 and continuing advances in the field.