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Romney Humphries, PhD

Innovator 02.01.2019
Courtesy of Chris Humphries

The Advocate Scientist

Romney grew up exploring the northern forests of Prince George, British Columbia. Bears were part of daily life—rooting through the garbage and fighting with the family dog. Her childhood instilled in Romney an abiding love for playing outdoors and studying biomes. A 20-year passion for rock climbing has driven her to scale boulders and mountains on four continents.

A bookish kid with an argumentative streak, Romney learned early on how to hold her own intellectually. Both her parents were teachers, and education was central in their household. Her math and science teachers played a vital role in her young life.

As an undergraduate at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, she had the opportunity to work at Health Canada in a microbiology lab. Her work testing water-borne bacteria that cause infections culminated in publishing her first paper and presenting it at a scientific conference at age 19. As she was applying to medical school in her senior year, she took her supervisor’s suggestion to apply to graduate school in microbiology, too.

As a student in the PhD program at University of Calgary, she was excited to learn that a professor there focused on the same bacteria she had been studying, and she joined his lab, immersing herself in research. The work was challenging, and she struggled to develop her own projects. Midway through the program, she feared she didn’t have what it takes to make it in science, but her PhD supervisor coached her through her self-doubt. Not only did she finish, she went on to complete a clinical postdoctoral fellowship at the UCLA David Geffen Medical School in Clinical Microbiology, where she became passionate about patient care.

As if in their own Hollywood thriller, her lab team and clinicians raced to discover the source of a deadly CRE outbreak.

It was evident this passion was also her calling when, as section chief running the clinical microbiology lab at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in 2014, Romney and her team identified an outbreak of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, which was giving patients deadly infections. As if in their own Hollywood thriller, the lab team and clinicians raced to discover the source: duodenoscopes with a design flaw that harbored microbes even after standard sterilization procedures. The episode garnered the attention of national media and the US Food and Drug Administration — and ultimately changed the way hospitals sterilize the scopes. That same year, her team identified the first case of a “superbug” that was resistant to the very antibiotic designed to kill it: ceftazidime-avibactam, which was new and not yet FDA-approved.

In 2017, Romney was offered a position at a company producing a new solution to speed up infection diagnosis and treatment. She jumped at the chance, and today she’s the chief scientific officer at Accelerate Diagnostics, which makes a microbe identification and antibiotic susceptibility testing system that compresses two days of lab work into seven hours.

Romney’s days at UCLA kindled a drive to address acute unmet needs in infection management and treatment. “My work has allowed me to find a voice in science and share my passion and knowledge with a much larger community,” she says. “I love being part of decisions that impact patient care and the direction of microbiology around the world, and I love sharing knowledge with physicians and other microbiologists.”

She has championed innovations in infection management with the Clinical & Laboratory Standards Institute, College of American Pathologists, US FDA, and other government agencies to improve infection prevention and detection, develop our understanding of resistance mechanisms, and identify better treatment regimens.

Her highest priority is developing new and better ways to help labs and physicians fight infections — especially those caused by multidrug-resistant organisms. She’s in the vanguard of scientists who are bringing those innovations to patient care. And she still seeks that next route up the rock.