Kansas company develops synthetic urine

? In Kevin Dyches’ mind, the future is yellow.

Dyna-Tek Industries, a company Kevin and his wife, Sandra, bought five years ago, has developed synthetic urine for the research industry.

One of their first customers was 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 also are 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.”

While the business plan might induce giggles, synthetic urine is a serious matter in the laboratory industry.

Human urine’s limitations

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 chemicals.

But human urine has its limitations.

It’s unstable, decaying rapidly if not kept refrigerated and must be frozen when shipped. It can smell, it foams and 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.

In the end, a fully synthetic urine has remained a laudable goal in scientific circles.

“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.”

‘Very large challenge’

David Ashley, the CDC’s emergency response and air toxicants branch chief, said his 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, adding that his agency bought 33 liters of Surine.

If the CDC’s experience with Surine is favorable, he said, it could increase that amount to up to 400 liters.

“So far it looks fine,” he said.

Dyna-Tek is not the first 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 the organic version’s 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.”

Increasing need

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 continues to be 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.”

The breakthrough, operations manager Susan Olsen said, 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 decays rapidly in regular urine if not kept cold, limiting the usefulness of most urine-based 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.

Meanwhile, Dyches said he continues to get 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.