From the unassuming façade of the one-story building in the industrial park located just outside of Allentown, there is no way to tell that the work taking place inside will alter someone’s life, for better or for worse.
The three laboratories located inside the building at Connective Tissue Genetic Tests are conducting molecular diagnostic tests for genetic disorders, which are predominantly performed on blood and saliva samples from children since that is the age when the symptoms of most disorders first appear. And with approximately 40 percent of the labs’ tests coming back with a positive result for a gene mutation, it’s vital that these tests are done accurately and in a timely manner.
When Medical Director Dr. James Hyland, and President and Director of Research, Development and Technology Dr. Leena Ala-Kokko decided to start their own commercial clinical laboratory they were in working for Tulane University in New Orleans. “We wanted to continue doing the work we were doing at Tulane linking new disorders to genes, but we wanted to be free of the restrictions that came with university-related research and the need to find a funding source, and other delays. We wanted to be able to release new tests as soon as possible,” said Hyland.
The company was founded in June 2004 and by July had found a home in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in South Allentown. It spent the first two months setting up its lab for formal accreditation. By September of that year it had started offering 10 tests commercially. Today, more than a decade later, it offers more than 1,400 tests with new ones being added regularly throughout the year.
Originally from the Philadelphia area, they decided to come back to the Northeast, and worked with a colleague to search for the right office space within a 60-mile radius of Philadelphia and located in a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which at the time Bridgeworks was.
The business started with one technician and a part-time office support staff before hiring another tech in December 2004. By the time CTGT graduated from the incubation program at Bridgeworks in 2007, it had a staff of eight and today has more than 20 employees.
“After three years we needed more space and decided to move our office, but we wanted to stay in the region since we liked living here and the lower cost of living than other places we’d been before,” said Hyland.
Since the couple started their business from scratch using their own funds, finding an affordable office space was critical to the company’s future success. “The tax advantage of being located in a KOZ combined with the affordable rent at Bridgeworks made it possible for us to get our company up and running,” said Hyland. “It allowed us to reduce overhead and thereby offer more affordable testing for our customers.”
The pair also likes to hire employees that are recent graduates from the region’s colleges and universities. “By hiring young professionals it gives us the opportunity to train them in our industry,” explained Hyland. “And we encourage them to continue their education too. So far four of our technicians have gone on to attend medical school. We want them to further their education in order to advance their careers”
Something that sets CTGT apart from its competitors is the turnaround time on test results. “Most of our competitors average eight or more weeks for test results to be completed,” explained Ala-Kokko. “But we understand that for the patient who is waiting on those test results, time is critical. They need to have an answer. So we turn around our standard test results in less than two weeks. Most are done in 10 days.”
To help them determine which tests to develop next, Hyland and Ala-Kokko monitor ongoing medical research in journals and online, and attend events and conferences. “We also get feedback from our customers who tell us what kind of tests they want,” said Hyland. The company has an extensive mutations database for many genes, which helps them with not only diagnosis but also in the development of new tests.
While mail-away commercial genetic testing has become popular online lately, CTGT’s testing is done through a doctor or medical facility and not directly with patients for legal reasons. Testing is primarily done on children after symptoms of a condition have appeared and the doctor needs to confirm it. The test results are compiled into a one or two-page report for the doctor in which the most meaningful data is summarized. The test results and reports are reviewed two-to-three-times before leaving CTGT’s office to ensure that they are accurate. “In this business quality and accuracy are imperative to the information we are providing doctors and patients,” says Ala-Kokko.
They also perform pre-natal testing, which is just as sensitive as it sounds. “We received a test for a female patient who, after two failed pregnancies, received the good news from our lab that her expected triplets were healthy, at least at a genetic-screening level. And we were able to give her the good news on Mother’s Day,” said Ala-Kokko. “She sent us a thank you card afterward.”