By DAVID TWIDDY
The Associated Press
Yes, Virginia, there really is a demand for alternatives to the real thing
LENEXA, Kan. - Synthetic urine, which sounds like something more likely to generate snickers than sales, is turning into a small success for a Kansas company.
Dyna-Tek Industries, a company bought by Kevin Dyches and his wife, Sandra, five years ago, has developed synthetic urine for the research industry.
One of their first customers is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which made a big purchase this summer and has hinted it could be a major buyer long into the future. Other research institutions and laboratories are also looking into Dyna-Tek's product, called Surine.
"We have been very blessed with this," said Dyches, who handles finances and marketing for the three-person company, discreetly tucked away in a suburban Kansas City office park. "It was pretty discouraging until about a year ago."
The laboratory industry has a serious need for synthetic urine. Researchers, drug-testing labs and other institutions buy thousands of gallons of the real stuff, mostly to calibrate the equipment used to test regular urine samples for drugs or other substances. Researchers periodically check the accuracy of their equipment by introducing samples that have been intentionally spiked with drugs and other chemicals.
But human urine has its limitations: It decays rapidly if not kept refrigerated and must be frozen when shipped. It can smell, and it foams. Donors must be screened carefully for drug use or disease. Also, different body chemistry guarantees that no two people's urine is exactly alike, an irritation for researchers who rely on consistency.
A fully synthetic urine could eliminate those problems.
"I think in the next few years, synthetic urine will replace human urine" in laboratories, said Fred Klaus, purchasing manager for Redwood Toxicology, a Santa Rosa, Calif., drug testing company that tests about 30,000 urine samples a day and is thinking about testing Surine. "If you end up with something like Surine that's very stable and easy to maintain, you're going to go to that because that's one of your savers."
David Ashley is the chief of the CDC's emergency response and air toxicants branch. His agency bought 33 liters of Surine - but may buy more than 10 times that amount if it works the way they hope it will.
Ashley's agency has a long history of handling human urine, but a new joint program with state health departments for monitoring harmful substances in the environment would require large amounts of urine quickly.
"We're faced with the very large challenge of producing material for all of those labs that will be consistent across the board," Ashley said.
Dyna-Tek is not the first outfit to attempt synthetic urine. Several companies have tried making it, typically ending with products based on human urine but treated with preservatives to reduce some of its problems.
Most of those products have fared poorly in lab tests, said Dr. Robert Willette, president of Denver-based Duo Research and one of the country's foremost experts on drug testing.
"None have been commercially successful," Willette said. "The criteria is it doesn't interfere with the tests, and the labs can't tell the difference."
Willette was one of several experts who advised Dyna-Tek in developing Surine, but he said he has no financial relationship with the company.
"I'm very interested in giving advice, because I want to become a customer," he said. "When you look at all the labs that have to use control samples to calibrate their instruments, there's an enormous potential out there."
There is another, less legitimate potential: Dyches said he has gotten calls from companies that want to sell his product to drug users so they can pass drug tests. He said he rejected those sales and continues to do business only with reputable research labs.
"I don't know how you avoid that," he said.
Dyches said the company, which was started in 1993 by a hospital toxicologist, is still small, with less than $500,000 in annual sales. Its main business is selling glass test tubes and evaporator cups used in manual and automated drug testing.
While Surine brings in just 7 percent of revenue, Dyches said, "I'd be disappointed if in five years that isn't 90 percent of sales." Right now, sales are in such an early stage that a price for the product has not been set.
Dyna-Tek had been tinkering with formulas for synethic urine since the days before the Dyches couple bought it. The breakthrough, operations manager Susan Olsen says, was when the company determined how to keep Surine stable during tests involving tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that gets people high.
THC is one of the chemicals Surine would be spiked with, to use as a control in testing people's urine. THC decays rapidly in regular urine if not kept cold, limiting the usefulness of most urine-based control products being shipped long distances.
In addition, drug enforcement agencies are calling for more companies to do drug testing at the work site, as opposed to mailing samples to a lab. With employees who may not have scientific training doing the tests, companies will want a more rugged product that doesn't require much coddling, Dyches said.
Dyches said he also is getting phone calls from industries outside of drug testing, such as a manufacturer that makes adult diapers.
"We're finding lots of applications for it that we didn't know existed," he said.
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