An Interview with CEO Wayne Barlow

Founded in the 1960s by Wayne Barlow and colleagues across different Utah universities, the company now known as Wescor, Salt Lake City, started out developing products for the aerospace industry before dabbling in—then becoming fully devoted to—technology for the clinical laboratory. Today, the growing company manufactures a variety of products including well-known slide stainers and osmometers. In May 2007, Wescor became part of the Paris-based Elitec Group—Wescor’s distributor in France. CLP recently caught up with founding president and CEO Barlow to discuss its slate of clinical lab offerings and his thoughts on where the industry is heading.

CLP: Tell us about your background.

Barlow: I graduated from Utah State University with a degree in electrical engineering. I was invited to Logan, Utah, to join the research faculty at Utah State, and I was involved in some of the early aerospace activities there under Dr Doran Baker.

When we formed the Logan Engineering Product Co, there were 14 faculty members involved. Out of the 14, I was the only one who actually resigned my university position—someone had to answer the telephone. You could look at that two ways: Either I was the most enthusiastic of the group, or maybe I was the misfit. Either way, I stayed with the enterprise through the “LEPCO” days and then through to the formation to Wescor, and I have been president and CEO since.

CLP: What is Wescor’s niche in the industry?

Barlow: In the in vitro diagnostics marketplace we make hardware, and we also manufacture reagents for our family of automatic side stainers. We’re probably best known for automatic slide staining, cytocentrifugation, and the cystic fibrosis diagnostic in the laboratory.

CLP: Wescor has a history of developing cystic fibrosis testing products. What can you tell us about the screening process?

Barlow: Basically, the way you diagnose cystic fibrosis in the lab is a procedure known as the sweat test. Wescor is now the leader in laboratory diagnosis of CF. We have two different systems that are used widely around the world. One is called the Macroduct sweat collection system, and it’s based on a small plastic testing device that goes on the limb of a child and collects a small sample of sweat. What you’re trying to determine in the diagnostic phase with the sweat test is if there are elevated electrolytes in the sweat, because children who suffer from CF excrete a lot more salt in their sweat than unaffected children. In 2001, we introduced the next generation, the Nanoduct—a neonatal sweat analysis system.

CLP: Have you made any recent updates to your line of automatic slide stainers?

Barlow: We’ve recently introduced a brand new design for the Aerospray slide stainer in a more modern, somewhat more functional housing, which features automatic reagent-level sensing. It’s something our customers have been asking for, and we’ve had it in development a long time. It will warn the user when any of the reagent bottles are getting low so they don’t run out of reagent during a staining cycle and thereby ruin a batch of slides.

CLP: What are the benefits of automatic staining?

Barlow: If you had to characterize this family of slide-staining products, you would probably call them labor-saving devices. Compared with hand staining, the Aerospray is quicker and much more stingy in the use of reagent, and all the mess is contained inside the machine. Furthermore, and perhaps the most important advantage, is that once you have the stainer set up to the satisfaction of the lab supervisor and you select the intensity setting, everyone gets the same results, because everything is microprocessor controlled. The stain is applied automatically in the form of an atomized spray.

A lot of automatic stainers use a basket, and you dunk the slides into various vats of liquid staining reagents. In those systems the quality of the staining is excellent at first when the vats are filled with fresh reagent, but as the machine is used, you carry over reagent from one vat to another and the staining quality goes downhill, sometimes rather rapidly. In the Aerospray stainer, only fresh, clean reagent is used every time, in the exact manner every time.

CLP: Tell us about the hematology reagents you manufacture. What are their distinguishing characteristics?

Barlow: Well, for one thing, we’ve invested millions of dollars over the years in reagent development specifically developed for use in the Aerospray stainer. Our reagents fall into two classes for hematology. On one hand we have a water-based reagent system, which is what we first introduced back in the early ’70s. The advantages of the water-based system is that it gives you very clean fields with virtually no debris, no precipitate, and bright clean coloration of the white and red cells. We recommend these primarily for applications wanting differential counts.

The other family of reagents goes with our stainer, which uses a methanol-based system. These reagents are based on methanol as the solvent, and this machine is used primarily in cases where you’re looking at the blood smear from a diagnostic point of view—not necessarily a cell count—where you want to look into the nucleus of the cell, look for granulation, or other things a hematologist would look at when diagnosing diseases in the blood.

CLP: What sort of training is required for operating your instruments?

Barlow: We have about 45 reps within the US and about 55 distributors outside the US who will go in and set up the machine for the customer and do the initial training. They’re available on call if there are any problems, and there are in-house experts who can be reached by toll-free number.

Once the user understands the very simple maintenance on these machines, then it’s just a matter of getting the smears down appropriately. Then the slides are put in place, and then you push the intensity of the staining and you can walk away.

Each of these machines also comes with two carousels. If you’ve got a lot of slides to stain, you can be loading your second carousel while your first is being stained. So you can crank out a number of slides per hour, in the neighborhood of 100 to 150, if you’ve got a lot of work to do.

CLP: How has the clinical laboratory industry been changing recently?

Barlow: Hospitals are being pressured to do more with less, and this affects purchasing decisions, so they’ll take longer cycles to replace equipment. We try to anticipate that and try to tailor our products and features to help augment that purpose for the hospitals.

There will always be pressure to accomplish more and to do it with fewer personnel. More and more automation, however, will require a higher skill level on the part of the people who are there, and that, I think, is going to continue on into the future.

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CLP: What are Wescor’s plans for the future?

Barlow: You can expect more continued growth as Wescor and the Eli-Tec group expands and grows. The Eli-Tec group has a very broad spectrum of in vitro diagnostic products, including clinical chemistry, the reagents to support the clinical chemistry analyzers, as well as automatic side stainers. Our Bothwell, Wash, division specializes in molecular diagnostics, so we have the molecular diagnostics aspect of that.

The goal of the group is to serve the in vitro diagnostic industry—particularly the small and medium-sized hospitals—as well as anyone else can do, and I think that Wescor fits well into that picture.

Stephen Noonoo is associate editor of CLP.