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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Dr. Elizabeth Forrester, left, and Dr. Dawn Richards pose at the Baylor Esoteric and Molecular Laboratory in the Weeks Science Building on the campus of Baylor School on Friday, July 17, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Two Chattanooga scientists who organized a site at Baylor School for coronavirus testing early in the pandemic are creating an expanded laboratory at The Bend in a new medical complex.

Athena Esoterix, the company formed by Dr. Elizabeth Forrester and Dr. Dawn Richards, plans to open a 3,850-square-foot lab at the Riverfront Medical Center next spring.

They said they'll specialize in advanced molecular detection and microbial testing at the independent lab with the aim to better help clinicians and enhance patient care.

"It will allow us to dive into infectious diseases at the highest level available," Richards said.

Forrester said that once the two scientists had started operating in that realm in their work, they began asking questions in a different way.

"How can we do this better and bring some of the advanced tools in this area?" she said they asked. "We're not a routine lab. We're bringing sequencing to this area, which is not normal."

The closest lab with similar technology is about 400 miles away, according to Athena Esoterix.

The scientists plan to open their expanded lab at the Riverfront Parkway medical complex that's the first new building going up at The Bend, the 120-acre former Alstom property undergoing a vast redevelopment.

Chattanooga-based Noon Development is raising the two-level, 25,000-square-foot medical center. The site is anchored by Riverfront Surgery Center, which will specialize in spine, pain management and orthopedic procedures.

Todd Kimling of Noon Development said the Athena Esoterix space will take up part of the second level, where only 2,000 square feet remain unleased in the complex.

"This is first-generation space," he said. "It can be custom to their needs."

Kimling said an adjacent 10,000-square-foot expansion of the medical building already is planned for the second story with parking underneath.

Forrester said she had come to Baylor School about six years ago to immerse students in real research and so they could experience science that's not in a textbook. She said Richards had a similar mission at Baylor, and they came together.

"It grew to give us a launchpad to what happened in March 2020," Richards said.

That's when the coronavirus hit, and it soon became clear that testing for it at the time wasn't going to be widely available, Forrester said. While testing was first seen for the Baylor community, everything soon changed, she said.

Richards said that many people needed testing, and providing them with results was really important.

"Can we stop the crack in this dike and stop the spread?" she said they asked at the time. "We were mission-driven at that point."

Toward the end of the last academic school year, Richards said the pair were seeing a need for diagnosis of infectious disease that wasn't compatible with the school, and there came a fairly mutual decision to part ways.

"We wanted to continue the lab rather than go back to the classroom," she said. "We chose to leave the school."

In July, they formed Athena Esoterix with the idea that the lab's work was something the community had come to depend on.

"We felt passionately we want it to be continued," Forrester said, adding they moved to the Tennessee Aquarium's Conservation Institute on Baylor School Road.

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Staff photo by Mike Pare / Todd Kimling of Noon Development points to the second floor of the Riverfront Medical Center where Athena Esoterix plans to set up its expanded lab next spring.

 

COVID-19 TESTING

The company offers same-day RT-PCR test results for Chattanooga area locals, which the company says is an ideal solution for meeting testing requirements in the holiday travel season.

To receive same-day test results, people can pick up Athena's at-home saliva collection kit from Fairyland Pharmacy, Signal Mountain Pharmacy, Hixson Pharmacy, Brainerd Pharmacy or from Athena's facility at 175 Baylor School Road.

Users can register their tests online, collect a specimen using a self-administered saliva collection device and return it to Athena, receiving results via text and email the same day the laboratory receives the test, if dropped off before 3 p.m., according to the company.

(READ MORE: As U.S. COVID-19 testing lags, Baylor School research scientists step in to help)

Tests associated with discretionary activities like travel or events cost $100, officials said. There are no upfront costs for symptomatic individuals or those with suspected exposures.

Walk-up appointments are available for nasal or saliva self-collection Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 pm and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. These also provide same-day results.

Richards said the company is looking forward to moving to The Bend, noting it's convenient and is part of other medical facilities.

"It will be built out by people who know what they're doing in terms of laboratories," she said. "There's a need for really clean space."

The company also has two staff members, and it plans to bring on more people, she said.

In three years, Forrester said the scientists anticipate growth, noting it's expanding into a space "that's really starting to take off."

"The public health piece is important to us," she said. "It's a tool to allow us to do infectious disease surveillance for our community."

Richards said the company used the name from the Greek goddess Athena, who was a helper of heroes.

"She wasn't in it for herself," she said. "We're giving clinicians information that helps their patients."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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