UCSC expands COVID-19 testing during surge to support community needs

A gift from Bud and Rebecca Colligan will expand testing capacity and help fund a new, dedicated laboratory space to house the diagnostic lab in the Genomics Institute’s facilities at the Westside Research Park

testing lab equipment and technician's hands
The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory is processing an increasing number of tests to identify coronavirus infections in the local community. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)
Rebecca and Bud Colligan
A gift from Bud and Rebecca Colligan is providing crucial funding to expand COVID-19 testing capacity and construct a new, dedicated laboratory space to house the diagnostic lab at the UCSC Genomics Institute. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

With COVID-19 cases surging in Santa Cruz County, the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory has seen a significant increase in the number of tests it processes to identify coronavirus infections.

Fortunately, UC Santa Cruz planned from the beginning to steadily ramp up the lab’s testing capacity and has been able to acquire additional equipment and add new staff. The lab now routinely runs more than 800 tests in a day, with weekly totals often exceeding 3,000 tests. So far, the lab has been able to meet the demand for tests from its partners and continues to return results within 24 to 48 hours.

“The numbers fluctuate. 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.

A generous gift from Bud and Rebecca Colligan is providing crucial funding to expand COVID-19 testing capacity and construct a new, dedicated laboratory space to house the diagnostic lab in the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute facilities at the Westside Research Park. The lab will be known as the Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory in recognition of their support.

Conceived and launched within a remarkably short time, the lab has been serving the needs of the Santa Cruz community during the COVID-19 pandemic since May 1, 2020. It has been operating in provisional lab space on the UCSC campus that is now needed for faculty research. The move to a permanent location at the Westside Research Park will take place early in the new year and is not expected to disrupt the lab’s operations.

Certified clinical laboratory

The Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory will be a certified clinical laboratory, featuring dedicated space to ensure cleanliness, prevent contamination, and accommodate an increase in testing capacity. This new laboratory provides permanent space that will enable the campus to expand its COVID-19 diagnostic testing to help ensure the region can manage and address public health and safety.

The Colligans said they were particularly motivated by the lab’s focus on providing testing for low-income populations and those without access to private health insurance, as well as providing an immediate response when there are outbreaks in the community that need to be contained.

“For us, the real driving factor is that the UCSC testing lab is serving as a first line of defense for vulnerable populations and first responders in the community,” said Bud Colligan, CEO of South Swell Ventures and cofounder and board member of the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership.

Bud and Rebecca Colligan are longtime supporters of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute. A previous gift from them created an endowment for the Colligan Presidential Chair in Pediatric Genomics held by Olena Vaske, an assistant professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology and one of several UCSC faculty members who led the effort to get the diagnostic lab established and who now serve as faculty advisers. In the long term, the Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory will be able to provide clinical support for Vaske’s work in pediatric cancer genomics.

“We are pleased to support the important work of UCSC in addressing the immediate need in our community for increased COVID-19 testing, as well as a long-term vision to use the lab for clinical research and testing related to pediatric cancers,” said Rebecca Colligan.

New hires

The lab has made several new hires in recent months to meet staffing needs, including additional certified diagnostic technicians and a new lab director. Susan Weaver, the director designee, is the clinical laboratory director at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas and lives in Aptos. She oversees a staff of 14 at the UCSC diagnostic lab and is taking over the director’s role from Dr. Ralph Green, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis.

“As our lab and staff growth shows, we are committed to serving our community through provision of highly accurate tests with quick turn-around time. We are constantly improving our operations in an effort to meet ever-growing needs,” said John MacMillan, associate vice chancellor for research and professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

As the new lab space comes online in 2021, it is expected that demand for testing will continue to increase to over 6,000 tests per week for the campus and community partners. The campus is providing surveillance and symptomatic COVID-19 testing for its own students, faculty, and staff, and it is also providing testing by agreement to local organizations that serve diverse low-income populations, including Santa Cruz Community Health and Salud Para La Gente. The campus is also partnering with Santa Cruz County Public Health and the Santa Cruz Community Foundation to provide testing for various local community medical providers and public service entities on a short-term, immediate basis, to address emergency needs.

The UCSC diagnostic lab offers testing to sites identified as critical by Santa Cruz Public Health and is taking on new partners that serve frontline workers, such as firefighters, and vulnerable and high-risk communities, such as care homes and homeless populations. The campus maintains a commitment to participating in the community testing effort as long as this lab can be helpful in that sphere. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be a crucial need for the foreseeable future.

In the long term, the laboratory will provide an adaptable, dedicated clinical testing facility that will be used for breakthroughs in precision medicine. As the pandemic winds down, UCSC will adapt the Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory to address the growing need for important clinical tests, especially for pediatric cancers.