A new clinical diagnostic lab in Tucson aims to provide sophisticated analysis to health-care providers and clinical-trial groups, while carving a niche in the emerging market for molecular analysis for new drug research.
Founded by a group including a former University of Arizona biotech program administrator, Pharos Diagnostics has set up a new high-complexity lab in midtown Tucson.
Pharos specializes in a molecular analysis technology known as mass spectrometry or simply “mass spec,” which identifies molecules based on their masses and the trajectories they take through an electric or magnetic field.
The company has set up one mass spectrometer in its lab, a former dental office at 3814 E. Fifth St., and plans to install two more, said Nina Ossanna, vice president and co-founder of Pharos and former business-development director for the UA’s Bio5 Institute.
Ossanna founded Pharos with several former employees of California-based LCMS Laboratories, which opened with some fanfare in Oro Valley in 2015 only to close last year.
In December, Pharos won federal certification under the guidelines of the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), allowing it to begin offering services.
Pharos Diagnostics plans to provide diagnostic services to clinicians, researchers, and drug-development companies.
The lab’s Agilent mass-spectrometer, which cost upward of $200,000, is a state-of-the-art instrument that can rapidly identify a range of substances at the molecular level. To separate molecular fragments for mass spectrometry, Pharos uses a technique known as high-performance liquid chromatography.
When subjected to mass spec, “Each of those fragments is like a fingerprint,” said Ossana.
“This is essentially the most precise diagnostic instrument there is … it really is the gold standard of diagnostics,” she said.
Initially the company hopes to provide sophisticated testing services for such things as vitamin levels and hormones, as well as high-sensitivity drug testing.
Longer term, Pharos hopes to collaborate with the UA and local drug research companies to help identify molecular targets and therapies, including development of companion diagnostics, matching individual patients with specific drug therapies.
Ossanna said Pharos isn’t looking to do the volume of bigger labs, some of which focus on drug testing.
Tucson already is home to several CLIA-certified independent labs, including some that offer moderate-and high-complexity testing, in addition to labs affiliated with physicians and hospitals.
Larger independent lab players include Sonora Quest Laboratories, a joint venture between Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics, and J2 Labs, which has four Tucson lab sites.
But some local labs send high-complexity tests out of Tucson for processing, and Pharos aims to scoop up some of that business.
“In the past, you’d have to send samples to New York or Salt lake City,” said Ernest Jimenez III, Pharos’ lab manager and a UA alumnus and former LCMS lab manager.
Pharos has also set up a veterinary side of the business and is already discussing work with some veterinary providers, Ossanna said.
The company has 10 employees, and its founders and investors include lab veterans Jimenez and several staffers from LCMS Labs’ shuttered operation here.
Those include former LCMS Vice President Mike Bergthold, now Pharos’ CEO, and Dale Ziegler, formerly CEO of LCMS and now chairman of Pharos.
Ossanna said Pharos’ founders so far have “bootstrapped” the company’s development with investments from the principals and some investors in California.
The company recently hired Dr. Diane Eklund, a UA alumnus and former director of the San Diego Blood Bank, as its chief medical officer. Eklund completed her residency and her clinical pathology certification at the UA in 1996 and was transfusion division chief at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center until 2001.
Officials of LCMS Laboratories, based in La Jolla, California, did not immediately respond to request for comment on the closure of its Oro Valley lab.