Monday October 20, 2014 0 comments
By Curt MacDougall
CENTENNIAL -- Time truly is a precious commodity, and no one knows that better than the staff at AlloSource, a Centennial-based company that handles human tissue donations.
Founded in 1994 by a consortium of organ procurement organizations, the firm operates as a nonprofit with a mission to uphold that gift of donation. And in the intervening 20 years the firm has provided more than 1.7 million grafts for patients -- everything from skin to bone, tendon and cartilage.
"This is truly a miraculous business," says Tom Cycyota, AlloSource president and CEO. "We're gifted with this material that people are kind and generous enough to donate to us, that has allowed us to help doctors do the amazing things that happen at the surgical level."
When it comes to the donation process, most of the actual details are coordinated through the organ procurement organizations - promoting tissue donation programs in the local communities, talking to the families and helping them through the bereavement process, removing organs and tissue, and so on.
"What we do is we get that donated tissue sent to us after it's been recovered from the donor, then we process the donation, make sure it's clean and not contaminated at all, and then distribute it to the surgeons," Cycyota explains.
And they do it very well. AlloSource is now one of the largest bone and soft tissue providers in the country, with some 450 employees and about $140 million in yearly revenues.
But even with all that success, there's room for improvement.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by the staff is time. Certain tissues have a shelf-life of four weeks, and half of that period - 14 days - is spent testing to make sure the tissue is clean and safe for transplanting.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math. Dr. Peter Stevens, VP of AlloSource's R&D and marketing, spells it out.
"That means we've only got two weeks to find the right patient, get the patient into surgery and send that allograft to the surgeon in a timely manner."
But AlloSource did turn to a few rocket scientists in an effort to improve those numbers when it entered into a joint venture with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"When NASA sends a probe to Mars, they do about 30,000 individual swab tests on the vehicle looking for bacteria," says Stevens. "And because they do so many, they've developed technologies for very rapidly detecting those bacteria."
By observing some of NASA's techniques at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and trying to incorporate them into the firm's existing procedures, AlloSource hopes to lengthen the tissue's usable shelf-life.
"If we could make that test in only two days, we could almost double the time that we have available to place a graft, which means we would have fewer of them expiring and therefore would be better honoring the gift of donation," says Stevens.
And if a two-day turnaround can't be reached, Stevens says they're cautiously optimistic that the information gleaned from NASA scientists will still help reduce the firm's time-line substantially.
"Even a five-day (turnaround) would be a significant win for us," he says.
Having access to a world-class transportation hub like Denver International Airport is another key factor in the race against time.
"The relationship we have with the air-carriers is top-notch," as Cycyota puts it. "You couldn't do this in, say, Omaha, Nebraska because there's just not the level of connectivity we need to move stuff around as quickly as we do."
But that's not the only reason the firm has its headquarters on the Front Range. Thanks to a predecessor organization, the Mile High Transplant Bank, there was already a local presence, and Cycyota says they benefit from being in the Denver area every day.
"We're very fortunate - we love it here. The infrastructure is great and the workforce is the best, providing highly-trained, motivated people. And educational facilities like CU and CSU are absolutely incredible resources for people and technologies."
Yet it all comes down to honoring the gift of donation, according to Cycyota.
"We make business decisions, as well as tissue-utilization decisions, with the donor in mind," he says. "They allow us to maximize utilization for the donor and get the materials to the surgeons that they need to put people back together.
"We really take the idea of our mission very seriously, and that's the thing I'm most proud of - the way we handle the gift that we get."