A service center to help you do your research

The core TASC team at their Stanford facility.
(Left to right: Lab Manager Shailja Patel, Director Joanna Liliental, Student Trainee Alia Yaghi, Research Assistant Sindhuja Godavarthi )

If you are a physician without a lab or a scientist needing research guidance or services, the Translational Applications Service Center (TASC) might be just what you’re looking for.

According to TASC’s director, Joanna Liliental, PhD, “We can process any type of mammalian samples. We specialize in projects that can be translated into the clinic. We’ve had people bring us clinical samples from human patients, as well as mouse tissues from animal studies, and we can do those as well, as long as there is interest in a disease or condition that affects humans.”

There are a few samples that TASC does not handle. “We will not process bacteria or viruses, because we don’t have the biosafety certifications required to work on hazardous, infectious samples,” Liliental explains.

Distinct advantages arise from working with a fee-for-service center at Stanford, says Liliental. “There is a strong culture of not competing with other services on campus, and not duplicating other core labs’ efforts. In fact, when possible we try to collaborate with other service centers. For example, some investigators may be interested in differential expression of certain genes, or identification of cell surface biomarkers, but they may not have a laboratory where they can isolate RNA from tissues for microarray or prepare their cells for flow cytometry. So we will work with them, learn to understand their project, and then isolate the RNA or stain cells and hand-deliver these to other core labs for the specialized downstream analysis.”

Liliental continues: “This is a win-win for everyone. For investigators, it’s one stop to get both the isolation and the microarray analysis done. They don’t have to knock on several facilities’ doors and find those different labs on their own. And both facilities can benefit from having gained another customer.”

Ingrid Oakley-Girvan, PhD, MPH (consulting assistant professor, health research and policy), is one such customer. For her project, she says, “TASC extracted DNA from about 50 formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue. This DNA was then sent to the Protein and Nucleic Acid Facility (PAN) for specific analysis.” There were quite a few benefits of this working arrangement, says Oakley-Girvan. “They were centrally located, conducted the work rapidly (2-3 week turnaround), used internal billing, had a reasonable cost, and delivered the DNA directly to PAN, providing updates to the PI by email.”

The lab was established three years ago with the intention of serving just the Translational Research and Applied Medicine (TRAM) program. The aim of Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, director of TRAM, and Liliental, TRAM’s associate director, was to “foster interactions between physicians and scientists. So Dr. Felsher created a core facility that was for the use of TRAM members originally. Lab personnel would provide either training for physicians or a location where physicians could do their own experiments.”

TASC provides centralized oversight and infrastructure for  translational research studies, as well as access to state-of-the-art proteomic, molecular and genomic technologies.

Very soon after the TRAM core lab was created, however, Liliental and her lab staff were being approached by people not part of TRAM asking for help with their research projects.  Liliental explains: “People outside TRAM started knocking on our door asking if we could isolate RNA from paraffin-embedded samples or if we could offer a nanoimmunoassay (NIA) of the proteins or if we could process and temporarily store blood and tissue specimens for their clinical trial project.”

One year later, after completing Stanford’s rigorous requirements for establishing a new service center, TASC opened its doors as a shared resource facility, available to offer its services outside of TRAM to the wider research community at Stanford and beyond. TASC’s overall mission is to serve as a comprehensive resource for investigators conducting translational research studies, by providing expert technical assistance and support to obtain and analyze data from molecular, proteomic and genomic technologies.  Liliental reports that 77% of her customers come from outside TRAM but inside Stanford, 16% are TRAM members, and 6-8% are external users, including nonprofits, other academic institutions, and industry collaborators. Within Stanford, “most clients come from the Department of Medicine, but we also have users from other, smaller departments,” reports Liliental.

Similar to the diversity among users of TASC’s services, those services themselves are diverse. Liliental continues, “We can provide scientific expertise and support for standard and customized assays, from the initial study design to the final analysis and interpretation. TASC standard services also include clinical sample acquisition, processing, and archiving for interdisciplinary translational research projects.”  

Unique to TASC, the facility offers its users a state-of-the-art nano-fluidic immuno-assay technology from ProteinSimple for defining protein signatures and measuring proteomic response to targeted therapies in rare clinical samples.  This novel proteomics technology is currently unavailable elsewhere on campus, and there are no commercial providers that can offer the NIA assay service. TASC has recently acquired the newest ProteinSimple NIA platform, PeggySue, capable of separating proteins based on both charge (NIA), as well as size (quantitative capillary-based SimpleWestern). Using NIA and SimpleWestern technology to observe changes in various signaling pathways, new assays developed at TASC have helped define various novel clinical targets for cancer, heart disease, pulmonary hypertension, and several other diseases.

TASC offers a variety of analytical services, technical and scientific consulting and training, as well as pay-per-use research equipment.

Alice Fan, MD (assistant professor, oncology), has taken advantage of several of TASC’s capabilities in her research. “TASC enables me to do translational research that was not possible in the past, because I work with tiny numbers of cells from patients. TASC has expertise in working with clinical samples, even vanishingly tiny amounts of sample. TASC has processed several hundred fresh tumor and blood specimens from my patients, and then used NIA to perform nanoscale protein analysis on rare cell populations from these samples.  I especially appreciate that the scientists at TASC are very collaborative and willing to use and develop new protocols specific to each research project.  Lastly, TASC's access to unique technologies (such as NIA) has generated high-quality data for publication that may help change the way we diagnose and treat cancer.

Currently, approximately 31% of TASC services are NIA-related; 22% of projects involve nucleic acid extractions from paraffin-embedded samples. Liliental mentions other services currently in demand: “RNA and genomic DNA extraction from tissues and cells; blood processing for customers who later want to use peripheral mononuclear cells in NIA assays; as well as miscellaneous services such as automated tissue homogenization, DMSO-based cryopreservation of cells, use of tissue-culture equipment, technical consulting, and training.

Even for investigators who have their own labs and are highly qualified to do these types of experiments, Liliental explains that “service centers offer standardized methods and highly specialized services, as well as expert trained staff for research support in a cost-effective and timely manner.” Finally, many core labs provide state-of-the-art equipment, that would otherwise be too expensive for a single laboratory or department to purchase and maintain.

Vinicio de Jesus Perez, MD (assistant professor, pulmonary and critical care) is one satisfied TASC customer who sums up his experience this way: “I have been a user of TASC services for the past 2 years. Working with TASC has accelerated my research by providing me with guidance, access to advanced equipment and technical expertise that has led me to achieve critical milestones in my research program and success in grant funding applications. Researchers at Stanford and abroad should take advantage of this unique resource to increase their productivity and quality of the data included in grant applications and manuscripts.”

The best way to determine if TASC is able to meet your specific research needs is to contact Joanna Liliental via email (jlili@stanford.edu) or from TASC’s website (tasc.stanford.edu) using the Contact Us tab.