Ipsum Diagnostics began 2020 with its routine business of checking samples for dermatologists, neurologists and other medical practices. But it also heard about a novel coronavirus beginning a global spread.
Now the rapidly growing Sandy Springs laboratory is dedicated to the COVID-19 battle, cranking through as many as 7,000 tests a day on behalf of the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“It’s really important to everyone here,” says Lauren Bricks, Ipsum’s co-founder and chief operating officer, who grew up in Sandy Springs. “You can see it. You can feel it. It’s really amazing how everyone has really stepped up.”
Bricks is a graduate of the school now called Riverwood International Charter School. She had a previous career in medical research, including biodefense on behalf of the Army and Navy, and setting up labs for various medical practices and companies. In 2011, she returned to Sandy Springs, where she now lives with husband Peter, an attorney, in the house where she grew up.
In 2016, she co-founded Ipsum with Colin Rogers, who was the national sales director at her previous job. The plan was to go into the lab business for themselves, with their own specialty tests and protocols. A core of their medical diagnostic work is polymerase chain reaction, a technique for quickly identifying pathogens by amplifying a small amount of their DNA or RNA genetic material.
Ipsum — the name means “accuracy” or “precision” in Latin — operates at 8607 Roberts Drive, a Sandy Springs location chosen so that the Bricks could stay settled in their hometown.
Amid the normal lab work, Ipsum in late 2019 learned about the coronavirus. “We heard about it just like everyone else, in the news,” said Bricks. They also knew “that it was better to get in front of it.” She recalled that by early February, the staff was saying, “We don’t’ know what it’s going to look like in the United States. But we’re going to go ahead, as soon as we have the genetic sequences [of the coronavirus], we’re going to start the development work.”
Bricks said Ispum knew it was ideally suited to help on the testing front of the pandemic battle. “We already had the whole infrastructure in place,” she said. “We had the right equipment. We had the right technology… We already had the safety measures in place to work with these types of specimens.”
Foreseeing that supplies would become scarce for standard tests, Ipsum developed its own, which gained emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration effective April 1.
What they didn’t foresee was the immense demand. The company, now at about 100 employees, had good timing in that it was already planning a 10,000-square-foot expansion.
“When you think about the demand just surging overnight, and you think about any business that is producing something — take shoes, for example, and one day you’re making 5,000 pairs of shoes and the next day you’re being asked to do 20,000 pairs of shoes. A laboratory’s no different,” Bricks said.
As of late July, Ipsum had processed between 250,000 and 300,000 COVID-19 tests, Bricks said.
Accuracy of COVID-19 tests has been a topic in the local and national news, with some patients seeing false positive or false negative results, and others frustrated by “inconclusive” results. Bricks said that designing and refining controls for accurate results is basic to all diagnostics, but that the COVID-19 mass testing has some unusual challenges. For example, it was not normal practice before the pandemic to collect a specimen from someone sitting in their car in a parking lot — a less than ideal environment.
Among the techniques Ipsum uses is also checking the amount of human genetic material in the sample; if there is not enough evidence of the patient themselves, then there probably isn’t enough material to confirm a COVID result, either. The vast quantity of tests is providing Ipsum with large amounts of data to refine the testing models, she said.
Ipsum is dedicated to COVID testing now, with its normal business virtually nonexistent due to the pandemic reduction in elective medical visits. Bricks declined to discuss the financial impacts on Ipsum, but said it is a time of unusual collaboration among labs, including on proprietary matters like test designs and protocols.
“Yeah, of course in a normal, non-pandemic world, you are very protective of that,” Bricks said of such information, but Ipsum has shared its protocols with two other labs and brought technicians in to train them. “No lab can absorb the entire capacity that’s needed,” she said.
Ipsum has to do all that work while following the same safety guidelines as any other business, including social distancing and daily testing of anyone who enters the building. While spreading COVID-19 is a public health problem anywhere, quarantines and cleanup shutdowns would be especially devastating at a diagnostic lab.
“If we have COVID here, it impacts everybody outside these walls because of the volume [of testing] we’re doing for the state,” said Bricks.
For the lab staff, it means tremendous pressure and stress, said Bricks, but also a dedication to the mission. “It’s inspiring,” she said.