Meet the Expert: John Sullivan

Meet the expert - John Sullivan

When and how did you first start working for TrichoTech?

My first job was at the University Hospital of Wales in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. The department was linked to a clinical trials unit and it was there that a breakaway company was formed in 1993 as Cardiff Bioanalytical Services. This company offered drug testing in urine, oral fluid and plasma. It was in this company that the initial thoughts of hair testing were being developed.

After working in the EPSRC National Mass Spectrometry Facility in Swansea for a year and then running my own laboratory business, I joined TrichoTech in 1999 when TrichoTech had just a few employees; a lab manager, a supervisor and some technicians (of which I was one). Back then we tested hair, oral fluid and urine but when Concateno acquired the company in 2007 we became a specialist hair lab. I think we were one of the first commercial hair testing labs in the UK as there were some university laboratories doing hair testing, but only on an experimental basis. It’s crazy to think that back at the start we were testing about 10 or 15 hair samples a month, now we are doing between 50 to 60 a week!

How has the business changed since you joined?

The investment from Alere has made a massive difference. We have been able to purchase state of the art instrumentation and equipment, which helps us test more samples in a quicker time, but also gives us the ability to do more research and development. That means we can look at developing methods that can test for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), such as synthetic cannabinoids.

What do you do for Alere now – how has your job changed since you started?

I have had several roles with the company, originally starting as a Technician then an Analyst, Lab Manager, Head of Analytical Services, and most recently Senior Toxicologist. My current role has a nice split as I spend about 80% of my time developing new tests whilst the other 20% is as an Expert Witness on hair testing. This gives me the opportunity to meet clients and means I still attend court occasionally, which I really enjoy.

As hair testing is used for the majority of pre-employment drug tests, I have also been known to visit workplace clients armed with a pad of paper and a pen to explain how hair testing works.

Why is it important to develop hair tests for new drugs?

As an Expert Witness I have a duty to the court to try and help them as much as possible. If courts are only able to look at a narrow range of drugs they might not be getting the complete picture. Therefore, if the industry can develop new methods to detect as many drugs as possible the courts have more options at their disposal.

Recent trends show that more and more people are using NPS so I think it’s really important that we bring tests to market that detect these substances.

How do you develop a hair test for a new drug?

Unlike testing in urine, oral fluid or blood, the drug levels in hair are much lower. That means you need better extraction and clean-up techniques, and better instrument sensitivity.

Assuming we have an instrument with sufficient sensitivity we need to prove that we can extract the drugs from hair at the same level every time. In order to do this we use real hair samples where we know the donor is taking the substance we want to extract. We then setup a series of experiments where we look at any matrix effects, the linearity, and the stability of the extract (how long we can detect the drugs for).

Validating our method…

Ultimately, we may want our method accredited by UKAS, but that is quite difficult because they need lots of data to prove stability over time and to see that we can extract the drug routinely at the same level. When you are testing for a new drug the number of samples that contain the drug is low, so it can take a long time to build up the volume of data required to gain the accreditation. However, all our new tests follow rigid validation guidelines regardless of accreditation status and results would always be fully defensible in court.

What else are you working on?

We recognise that our clients want their results as quickly as possible, so we are looking at ways in which we can do that for them and get results out within 2-3 days.

Therefore I am looking at transferring some of our Gas Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) methods over to Liquid Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS). LC-MS methods are quicker for us to perform and should enable us to provide a quicker turnaround time to our clients, which should make a big difference.

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