Last January, before many in the U.S. were even thinking about the coronavirus, Lauren Bricks (B.S. ’05, biological sciences) and her company were already preparing for it.
Lauren Bricks. Photo courtesy of same.“When we first heard about COVID-19, right away we knew that, as a respiratory pathogen, the virus posed a public health risk,” Bricks recalled. “We could never have imagined the scale of the global pandemic that would result, but based on what we did know, we knew we needed to prepare.”
From the day Bricks and her business partner co-founded Ipsum Diagnostics in an Atlanta suburb, the company’s mission was to develop highly specialized diagnostic tools for doctors, and, in particular, testing for pathogens. In business since 2016, the company already had infectious disease specialists, molecular biologists, and the necessary infrastructure and safety measures in place to take on what would become its biggest challenge yet.
“Our core competencies positioned us to pivot quickly to take on COVID,” said Bricks, who serves as the company’s chief operating officer.
But developing a test to detect this dangerous new virus was complicated. Bricks’ team could only move as fast as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would permit. Once the CDC released the genetic sequence for the virus and the NIH’s BEI Resources Repository provided key genetic material, Ipsum’s lab was off and running.
From then on, the lab was in high gear, working all-out to develop a rapid response test for COVID-19, one that could provide an accurate result even if the sample was taken in an unconventional test environment such as a parking lot. By March, the development team had made significant progress, utilizing polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique for quickly identifying pathogens by amplifying a small amount of their DNA or RNA genetic material. But COVID cases were already showing up in the U.S. by the thousands, test availability was limited, and for Bricks, a single phone call suddenly added a whole new sense of urgency.
“I remember my mom calling and telling me that my dad was sick and needed to be tested for COVID,” she said. “My parents had traveled to Boston in March for my brother’s engagement dinner and they both got sick afterward. At the time, I never imagined that they would both get COVID. Our lab was already working on developing the test, but the importance of our work became even more personal.”
On March 20, 2020, Ipsum Diagnostics’ PCR reference laboratory test for COVID-19 was submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It quickly received emergency use authorization—and just in time.
“My parents were the first patient samples we tested once we were authorized,” Bricks recalled. “Thankfully my parents are ok now, but if my dad had not received an accurate diagnosis and proper medical care, the outcome could have been different.”
Now, six months and more than 620,000 Reverse Transcription-PCR (RT-PCR) tests later, Ipsum Diagnostics is one of the busiest processing laboratories in the U.S., and one of only 12 authorized by the FDA for COVID-19 molecular testing. With over 130 employees, the company operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sending out their COVID-19 collection kits by the thousands to health care providers in hospitals, Departments of Public Health, nursing homes and schools. The lab processes thousands of COVID-19 samples that are delivered around the clock from all over the country. COVID-19 work has taken over Ipsum’s entire operation, with employees churning through tests faster than they ever imagined possible.
“To put it into perspective, before the start of the pandemic, our lab tested about a hundred medical samples a day. Now we have days where we test more than 10,000 samples—more in one day than we’d ever do in a month,” Bricks said. “Our turnaround time is 0.4 days per test. Basically, from the time a sample is scanned as it’s received at the lab, the average turnaround time to report a result to the patient is less than 12 hours.”
From the start, COVID-19 testing has provided crucial information for officials to track the virus and determine who should be quarantined to prevent the spread. For Ipsum, developing the test itself might have been the easy part. Bricks quickly learned that when you’re dealing with something as unpredictable as a pandemic, there is no such thing as a “normal” workday.
“Nothing is predictable,” Bricks said. “Every day there’s a new priority, whether it’s a supply chain issue or a change in test utilization, like return to work or new CDC guidelines. As a company, we’ve had to stay focused, adaptable and agile.”
Patients needed immediate access to their reports for “return to work” testing. Ipsum quickly developed an innovative user-friendly patient web portal in English and Spanish where patients could get quick access to their test results.
“Overnight, we went from having minimal patient calls that were limited to billing and requests for medical records to receiving thousands of calls and emails,” Bricks said.
Every message brings a reminder of COVID’s impact on people’s lives and the importance of her company’s mission.
“Each phone call or email from a patient has an important reason for needing test results. There’s a strong sense of responsibility to each patient and an understanding of the impact of testing,” she said. “There are cancer patients who need to resume chemo treatment, parents that need to go back to work so they can provide for their families, a new baby that a grandparent is anxious to finally meet. Every single report impacts somebody.”
Launching a Lab of her Own
The daughter of a laboratory technologist and a chemist, Bricks always knew science would be part of her future. But nearly 20 years ago, when she came to the University of Maryland, she never imagined she’d be running a business on the frontlines of a major international pandemic.
“At that age, I really never thought about how to apply a biology degree to something other than being a health care provider or doing research,” Bricks said. “I certainly did not consider the entrepreneurial path of owning my own laboratory.”
She now believes every step she took along the way—studying biological sciences at UMD, following her dad’s advice to pursue an MBA, and gaining practical skills and knowledge through years of work—prepared her for just that. Every experience—whether it was developing assays to detect biological agents at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, setting up laboratories and learning to navigate the regulatory process at Thermo Fisher Scientific, or launching clinical diagnostics labs as a consultant—brought her closer to starting a lab of her own.
Now, as she leads her company through the pandemic, Bricks is most proud of her team, their dedication and how they’ve stepped up to meet the challenge of COVID-19.
“My team inspires and amazes me every day,” Bricks said. “They’ve been through some of the most difficult challenges and unbelievable amounts of stress, but they remain the most uplifting, supportive, innovative and focused team. They are absolutely heroes, performing critical testing around the clock because they understand the importance of their work and the impact they are making on so many people.”
Bricks is hopeful that the future will bring a vaccine and medical therapies that can stop COVID-19 in its tracks. But for now, she’s simply grateful to be part of the fight—even if sometimes it still seems almost too unbelievable to be real.
“I feel unbelievably humbled and fortunate to be providing the necessary testing to help with this pandemic,” she said. “While this has been the most challenging experience, it has also been the most important work of my life. None of this would be possible without the exceptional team we have at Ipsum.”
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