From our hotel in Milan, the trip to DiaSorin takes about an hour and a half, travelling west to Saluggia. This small town in the Italian Piedmont has narrow streets that barley accommodate our tour bus. In this part of the world you take your time and take your turn through the single lane roads. You keep your extremities in the car, lest you bang them on a two hundred year old building that is only inches from the window. We arrive at DiaSorin and pull up to a complex of industrial buildings that seem out of place in this farming region with expansive fields of corn, rice or wheat. The contrast of finding the headquarters of a modern technology leader in diagnostics concealed between corn fields and a retired nuclear power plant is not lost on any of us.
The bland exterior of the buildings in the complex belies the modern interior of the building. We are greeted by Paolo Criveli, a dapper man with a pleasant smile and friendly demeanor. It is clear that Paolo wants our experience to be pleasant and informative. Paolo leads us to a well appointed conference room and delivers an interesting presentation about DiaSorin’s history and its place in the diagnostics industry. The presentation designed to last about 30 minutes stretches to an hour because of our many questions and Paolo’s enlightening answers. DiaSorin is a leader in diagnostics and produces reagents and instruments that are used to measure the presence and/or concentration of analytes in bodily fluids (blood, urine, stool…). We are all familiar with the application of diagnostic tests; we strive to lower our cholesterol, men worry about their PSA levels (a prostate cancer screening test) and who hasn’t had to pee in a cup for a random drug screen. In fact, it has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of medical decisions are made based on the results of diagnostic tests.
In the corner of conference room stands a Liaison XL, DiaSorin’s newest instrument for performing laboratory tests. This machine is modern and sleek, standing over six feet tall and seven feet wide. It has the minimalist, cool look that reflects the fact that the graphic designers at Ferrari envisioned the shell of the instrument. Our group immediately recognized the XL, because we had seen a group of nine of them in a working diagnostic laboratory in the US. Prior to our trip we toured the testing labs at LabCorp’s Center for Esoteric Testing in Burlington, NC and saw these machines in there “native environment”. We heard that LabCorp employs DiaSorin reagents and instruments to produce thousands of results for a single test, vitamin D, and that the health of millions of patients each year is assessed by this testing. This gave our group a unique perspective and the opportunity to understand the relationship between the instrument supplier, the testing laboratory, physician and the ultimate end user, the patient.
Paolo told us that, along with being a recognized leader in vitamin D testing, the DiaSorin produces reagents for infectious disease and blood bank testing along with numerous tests used by generalists, endocrinologists and oncologists. He expounded on DiaSorin’s innovative menu of stool tests and their development of a molecular testing menu based on their superior “LAMP” technology. We discussed the challenges of fostering innovation in the fast growing field of diagnostics and the fact that DiaSorin spends 10 percent of its revenue on R&D. It was interesting to hear about the regulatory environment regarding diagnostic testing in the US and Europe and the challenges associated with launching new tests in these areas. We had an engaging discussion about the labor force in Saluggia and the methods DiaSorin employs to recruit the best scientists to join their company. One member of our group volunteered to join the company on the spot, obviously realizing that the company’s location an hour away from Milan, the Alps, Lake Como and the Italian coast of the Mediterranean are hardships he could withstand. We quickly came to understand why DiaSorin has enjoyed greater than 10 percent annualized growth since 2004.
After our lively discussion, we walked to an adjacent building for a tour of operations. We donned disposable protective suits and booties, both for our protection and to prevent contamination of valuable reagents and cultures. We walked down sterile hallways with windows into the heart of their reagent production and kit manufacturing facilities. These operations produce highly purified antigens (measured analytes) and antibodies that are used to construct immunoassays. The tour guides were enthusiastic and clearly very proud of their operation. They showed us that skills in biochemistry, analytic chemistry and cell culture techniques are integral to the production of very pure and specific reagents required to construct their assays. It was interesting that they choose to manufacture some reagents that could be purchased pre-made because they want to have complete control of the quality and consistency of the product. The tour guide explained that inconsistencies in the performance of components could impact performance of their kits or cause them to miss production deadlines. Several of our group commented that they had used some of the techniques employed in this facility as part of their own jobs, but on a much smaller scale.
Overall, the visit to DiaSorin’s Saluggia facility was informative and helped the group to see the challenges and opportunities associated with an international biotechnology firm. We enjoyed it thoroughly.
Written by: Andre Valcour