Healthcare Enterprise: Aegis Sciences Building an International Reputation for Toxicology Testing

SHARON H. FITZGERALD

Healthcare Enterprise: Aegis Sciences Building an International Reputation for Toxicology Testing
When an athletic doping scandal hits the front pages, you can bet that David L. Black's phone will be ringing. That's because Black is a globally recognized toxicology expert whose Nashville company, Aegis Sciences Corp., boasts one of the nation's most sophisticated testing laboratories.

"Every day almost, I am called by or interviewed by someone in the media related to the sports testing that we do. If you hear of a case of an athlete who dies suddenly and unexpectedly and where there's been an autopsy conducted, more likely than not, we will be involved in that case and perhaps conducting testing on a post-mortem basis for anabolic steroids or other drugs that might be commonly used in sport," said Black, who has a doctorate in forensic toxicology from the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Whether the job is testing an athlete for

the presence of human growth hormone, a nurse for the presence of unprescribed narcotics or a forensic sample for the presence of a chemical that could cause death, Aegis offers an array of laboratory services to an astoundingly diverse clientele. Black estimated that the company analyzes more than 125,000 samples a year for about 3,000 clients.

Aegis was born in 1986 as a Vanderbilt University lab to test athletes for performance-enhancing drug use. The university recruited Black to establish and run the program, but after four years, the program was discontinued. "So I took the program off-campus," Black recalled. The private laboratory opened its doors on July 1, 1990, with four employees.

Today, Aegis employs 115 people. In July, the company moved into a new 35,000-square-foot headquarters in MetroCenter while retaining its previous 10,000-square-foot facility on Hill Avenue. "We've expanded dramatically and substantially, and we needed more space and equipment," Black said.

Black credited Aegis' growth to two things: a rising demand for testing services and a shift in business philosophy away from a professional services model. "The change in attitude has really changed the way in which the business has been managed and the way in which we go about growing the business," he said.

It's obvious the new approach is working: The company's revenues have skyrocketed from $4 million annually to $28 million.

While Aegis earns most of its notoriety from sports testing (the company administers the

World Wrestling Entertainment and NASCAR programs and contracts with scores of Division I universities), most of Aegis' business is in

pain-management compliance testing. Physicians turn to Aegis to ensure that patients who are being administered controlled narcotics such as oxycodone or hydrocodone are indeed taking those drugs — and not selling them on the street. Physicians also use the service to guarantee that patients with chronic pain aren't taking other drugs, either prescribed or illicit. "So the patient is monitored to ensure not only compliance with the doctor's instructions, but also that they're not taking other drugs that the doctor is unaware of," Black said.

Also in the healthcare arena, Aegis is known for its sophisticated medical workplace drug testing. "The challenge for clinics, hospitals and other settings that are handling controlled drugs for medical purposes, there is opportunity for theft, use and pilfering. The drugs of abuse that may be encountered in that setting are quite different from what you might expect in a manufacturing facility. So we run a much more comprehensive profile to look for drugs that you would never commonly look for in a more limited test." Aegis also handles workplace testing for a host of top-tier clients such as Nissan North America and Bridgestone-Firestone, and recently began an anabolic-steroid testing program for Nashville police.

Aegis' trademarked Zero-Tolerance Drug Testing program can screen for more than 400 different drugs, including marijuana, amphetamines and meth, cocaine and crack, barbiturates and opiates, and for performance-enhancing compounds like anabolic steroids, beta blockers and ephedrine. Black said he developed Zero-Tolerance when he administered the National Football League steroid-testing program. "It's a much more sensitive and comprehensive drug-testing approach, and it's far less affected by efforts on the part of the individual to buy and use a product that might interfere with the drug test," he said.

Yet another line of work for Aegis is forensic toxicology. Those services were launched in 1997, when the newly privatized Metropolitan Nashville medical examiner's office contracted with Aegis. "That's led to us working with other medical examiners throughout the United States and also crime laboratories where they need crime-scene evidence analyzed and identified," Black said. Aegis offers three tiers of post-mortem toxicology testing with varying levels of sophistication and comprehensiveness. Also on the legal front, Aegis contracts with state prison systems for parole and probation testing.

Clients ship samples via overnight delivery to Aegis from all over the United States and choose how they receive the results. Options include a secure Web site, an encrypted e-mail message, overnight delivery, fax or mail.

What's next for Aegis? "Well, we have many opportunities. Of course, one of the difficulties with success is sorting through your opportunities for further success," Black said. "We're looking at some aspects of personalized medicine or services that might fall into the category of drug discovery and pharmaceutical research. But we're also looking to expand the current set of services that we already have in place."

For more information, see www.aegislabs.com.