The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab is on the verge of an expansion and relocation.
(Carolyn Lagattuta / UCSC)
Higher Ed

‘First line of defense’: UCSC’s COVID-19 testing lab ready to relocate, ramp up

Already a pillar of testing capacity for both the campus and wider community, UCSC’s COVID-19 testing lab is prepping to grow as it moves into a new home.

The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab is expected to move off the main campus to a Westside Santa Cruz site early in 2021, UCSC announced this week. It will be housed at the Westside Research Park, a renovated office complex purchased by the university in 2004 that also serves as headquarters for UCSC’s Genomics Institute.

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Opened in May, the facility is UCSC’s first-ever clinical laboratory. It has played a significant, and still growing, role in in boosting Santa Cruz County’s testing capacity — running more than 3,000 tests in a typical week, according to campus estimates.

Its output accounts for roughly a third of all weekly tests reported in the county.

Research specialists Scott La and Anouk van den Bout work in the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab.
Research specialists Scott La and Anouk van den Bout work in the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab.
(Carolyn Lagattuta / UCSC)

Nearly half of those tests are run on behalf of residents in the wider community. UCSC runs tests at-cost for Santa Cruz Community Health and Salud Para La Gente, nonprofits serving low-income populations. And it offers testing to the Santa Cruz Main Jail and other public agencies and medical providers, either on an ongoing basis or to meet urgent needs.

Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency spokeswoman Corinne Hyland said the UCSC lab has at least two key benefits: A reliably speedy turnaround time of one to two days and a lack of reliance on certain testing materials that have been in short supply.

“That is extremely valuable to us as a county, and the resiliency of our county,” Hyland said.

So far, UCSC’s diagnostics lab has been able to keep up with growing demand.

“We have seen big spikes from some of our partners, but our model is to be responsive to emergencies, and we are working to address their needs,” said Isabel Bjork, executive director of the UCSC Genomics Institute, in a statement.

But campus officials expect the lab may need to double its pace next year as more partnerships are forged to test frontline workers, firefighters and the homeless population.

Further down the road, the plan is to pivot the diagnostic lab to pediatric cancer testing and research. The intended use of the clinical certification that paved the way to open the lab, those plans were put on hold to address the more immediate crisis.

Funding for the move comes by way of a donation from philanthropists Rebecca and Bud Colligan. The amount was not disclosed. In acknowledgement, the lab will be rebranded as the Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory.

“We want to see the lab continue to be a first line of defense in our community for low-income and vulnerable populations,” said Bud Colligan, an investor, entrepreneur and founder of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership.

“Having a lab like this at UCSC is critical for now, it’s critical for future pandemics, and hopefully,” he added, “we’ll be able to spend time doing research and clinical work.”