Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story overstated the role of Alere’s Scarborough laboratory. Information supplied by the company misrepresented the extent of the Scarborough lab’s participation in the development of a rapid flu test. On Monday, an Alere representative had claimed that all of the research and development associated with a $12.9 million federal contract would be conducted in Scarborough. On Tuesday, she said only a portion of the work would be at the Scarborough lab, but she did not yet know how much.

A medical research laboratory in Scarborough will be involved in a multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop the next generation of pandemic influenza tests.

The health department awarded a 3½-year, $12.9 million contract to Waltham, Massachusetts-based Alere Inc. to develop a diagnostic device that is more accurate, less expensive and delivers test results more quickly than existing products.

A portion of the research and development will be conducted by Alere’s subsidiary in Scarborough, said company spokeswoman Marni Goldstein.

Alere produces what are known as point-of-care diagnostic devices, which test patient samples on the spot without requiring them to be sent to a lab. The company has developed point-of-care devices for a wide variety of diseases, including influenza, Lyme disease, malaria, measles, mumps, HIV and herpes.

Point-of-care testing allows doctors to prescribe the correct treatment immediately and reduces the instances in which antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily to patients with viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics.

Unnecessary use of antibiotics is bad because it can result in people developing a resistance to future antibiotic treatments.

“Prescribing medication or other therapies in a more targeted way is good stewardship and will be critical to reducing the risk of antimicrobial resistance,” said Robin Robinson, director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which issued the contract to Alere.

Point-of-care testing also helps prevent health care providers from running out of medicine in the event of a major outbreak, Goldstein said. Without such testing, they are more likely to prescribe treatment to those who don’t need it.

“Accurate, rapid testing is especially critical during a flu pandemic, when antiviral medications are often in short supply,” she said.

Rick Bright, acting director of the development authority’s Influenza Division, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is one of the officials involved in the federal government’s flu-test development program.

Bright said one goal of the Alere contract is to develop a device that produces test results within 15 minutes. Faster flu testing is important because antiviral drugs used to treat the disease work most effectively within the first 48 hours of infection, he said.

“In terms of the turnaround time for results, every minute counts,” Bright said. “The faster, the better.”

Expense also is a factor because a lower cost will result in more people having access to the test. “The more cost-efficient, the more attractive it would be,” Bright said.

Accuracy is equally important, said Roxanne Shively, devices team leader of the Influenza Division. Existing point-of-care influenza tests tend to produce false negatives, Shively said, giving doctors less confidence to prescribe or withhold treatment based on the results.

“The goal is to provide as good a result as sending the sample to a lab,” which can take up to 72 hours, she said. Influenza tests require a mucus sample that is obtained by swabbing the inside of a patient’s nose.

Bright said fast and inexpensive tests for highly contagious diseases such as the flu help prevent pandemics. His organization has been on a mission to preserve lives by reducing the number of major outbreaks.

“We have been working on this mission of improving diagnostics and getting them closer to the patient for the past five years,” he said.

Founded in 1991 as SelfCare, Alere is a publicly held diagnostic device and service provider that trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “ALR.”

The company generated revenue of about $3 billion in 2013. It has roughly 18,200 employees worldwide, including 190 at its Scarborough facility.

 


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