Quick and nimble sets the pace

Posted on October 09, 2020

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THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has created unprecedented challenges for the world. But for some, it has presented unique opportunities. Equipped with the right mix of experience, knowledge, and tools, those with a vision and willingness to take risks have embarked on journeys into uncharted waters in the hope of finding better solutions.

Two UNC Greensboro alumni – Keivan Ettefagh ’13 PhD and James Patrick Healy ’14 PhD (r-l, above) – have taken the leap, and they are moving full-sail ahead on mass-producing an innovative technique for collecting and testing samples for COVID-19.

“What’s wonderful about our company is it’s very science-driven.”

—Keivan Ettefagh ’13 PhD

As vice president of technical innovation and lab manager, respectively, they are part of Greensboro’s Select Laboratory Partners (SLP), a local company that specializes in laboratory implementation, management, and support for healthcare practitioners.

Their mission? Create an easy-to-use testing kit – using saliva instead of a nasal swab – and a lab process that can turn results around in 24 hours.

They not only accepted the challenge, but as of this printing, they are sending out 20,000 test kits per month and running close to 3,000 tests per week. They are on track to reach 50,000 test kits per month and 10,000 tests per week.

“You’re watching every step and asking, ‘What can we do better?’.”

—James Patrick Healy ’14 PhD

The two met during teaching assistant training for the inaugural year of UNCG’s PhD in Medicinal Biochemistry program. Ettefagh went on to be a member of the Cech Lab; Healy studied under biology professor Vincent Henrich.

Their lab process is based on a newer type of molecular nucleic acid testing, which they have meshed with their existing expertise on the regulation, management, compliance, and reporting of data obtained during testing.

That was the first step of their challenge. The second was to then scale up. It is one thing to figure out a better testing method. It is quite another to produce it at a quantity and quality that is high enough to meet the extreme demands that COVID-19 has wrought.

And how does a small operation like SLP compete with bigger companies who are racing to do something similar? Ettefagh and Healy indicate that part of their advantage is their size, which makes them nimble. SLP was able to quickly pivot and retool for COVID-19 testing based on existing knowledge, processes, and industry connections.

“What’s wonderful about our company is it’s very science-driven,” says Ettefagh. “Our chief operating officer has a PhD in chemistry, and that helps direct us. Our CEO is trained as a molecular technologist instead of having a business degree. It’s a constant responding to what is out there as scientists and improving upon those things.”

“What I learned in manufacturing is the idea of continuous improvement,” says Healy. “You’re watching every step and asking, ’What can we do better?’ It could be as simple as ‘Move this or that to a different location’ or as complex as ‘Let’s change the whole way we do this thing.’”

What will they do when a vaccine is finally found? Ettefagh says their long term goal is to convert their process into other diagnostic molecular testing – focusing on other viral diseases, cancer, and genetic mutations that lead to a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases.

By Matthew Bryant
Composite photography by Martin W. Kane