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Lab Produces Quality Control Materials for Forensic, Clinical Testing

Posted: December 21, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 21, 2013 2:00 a.m.

UTAK Laboratories CEO Jim Plutchak, right, stands with production assistant Chris Kim, as he manufactures serum in the the manufacturing room at UTAK in Valencia on Wednesday.

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The idea of filling a void in forensic and clinical lab testing circles was born 40 years ago in 1973 of Larry and Judy Plutchak when they launched UTAK Laboratories of Valencia to supply much need quality control materials – blood, urine and body fluid materials – for test verifications in labs across the country.

“When you run a test on an instrument or machine, you need to calibrate it, and then verify the calibration to ensure test results are accurate,” said son and CEO, Jim Plutchak. “You do that by using high quality control materials.”

Forensic and clinical labs run tests today looking for scores of possible scenarios – did a person die of drug or alcohol poisoning; is a patient vitamin-D deficient; or is a psychotropic medication level too high or low in one’s body for a person to function properly?

While working at the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, Plutchak’s dad used to get really frustrated trying to find quality control materials to run against his tests, he said. Finding the materials took time away from his job to run the actual tests for some pretty high-profile cases, too.

“At one point, he did the toxicology work for the Tate-LaBianca Manson murders and was almost called to the stand to testify,” Plutchak said. “He also examined Swedish actress Inger Stevens to determine the cause of her death.”

After running tests for alcohol and barbiturates in 1970, it was determined that she died from “acute barbiturate poisoning,” according to the Coroner’s office.

While working his cases, and always searching for quality control test materials, Plutchak’s dad got the idea to produce commercial products that labs could buy so doctors and lab employees wouldn’t have to create or find their own materials. Thus was born UTAK – a play on the family’s last name. Moving to Canyon Country in 1979, the founders worked out of what Plutchak believes had once been a small, old hospital on Golden Triangle Road back in 1979.

“They built it from scratch, and it took about five years before they were able to quit their regular jobs,” he said. “The business really started to take off then, once they were able to manufacture high quality products.”

Getting the right test result is really important, Plutchak said. Whether its blood, urine or body fluids being tested, a lab needs comparative test materials to know if their equipment is accurately testing for a lethal amount of alcohol or drugs; or if a living person is being affected by any number of natural, medication or environmental factors – like metals and leads.

More recently, UTAK Laboratories has developed quality control materials for testing designer drugs like Spice and Bath Salts – the first company to commercially produce these materials for use with any testing methodology or testing platform. Manufacturing body test materials spiked by any number of chemicals – legal or otherwise – requires that the company have a Drug Enforcement Administration license.

While UTAK produces material for some of the industry biggest players, including medical diagnostic labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCore of America, the company has about 500 clients overall, Plutchak said. What’s led to its success is that is services special requests. Of the business, 40 percent is forensic and 60 percent is for clinical purposes, he said. But, half of their business comes from designing custom products for labs.

A lab will call and say it needs to test for specific analytes – or elements – and UTAK produces the materials spiked with that element to serve as the quality control test material, Plutchak said.

“We’re in a niche industry. There might only be less than 10 companies that manufacture quality control material, and only maybe three of us that will customize products.”

UTAK Laboratories will customize material as small as 100 milliliters – about the size of one-third of a soda, he said. By comparison, the bigger companies have big vats of material and for instance might produce tens of hundreds of material at a time in 100 liter volumes.

“When you scale that big you can lose quality,” Plutchak said.

As the company grew business was really good in the 80’s. In the 90s, Plutchak’s parents wanted to retire and tried to sell the business but that never materialized. Although Plutchak never saw himself in the family business, he assumed control after he graduated from law school in 2002.

“It took about three or four years to get the company back on track with sales and marketing,” he said. “We talked to our customers and asked them what they wanted, what they liked and what they didn’t. We updated, re-branded and set out to make new products.”

Since 2005, the privately-held company has probably tippled in size, Plutchak said. It went from eight to 25 employees and is currently building out its lab fitting it to the company’s specifications. Having come through the recession and done very well, he sees UTAK only growing from here on out.

“We’re hoping to double the size of the company revenue and employee-wise in the next five years,” Plutchak said.

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