Using a portable kit to be able to quickly analyse human DNA collected in the field for investigative and forensics purposes has been a long-time dream for the FBI, law enforcement and the US Department of Defense (DoD).
This week at the Biometric Consortium Conference, companies unveiled prototype DNA analysis kits they claim can automatically carry out what's being called "Rapid DNA" analysis in a few hours or less with the accuracy now only achieved in lab environments with many hours of expert work from trained technicians often facing huge backlogs of requests.
"We'll have pre-production units out by the end of year," said Dr Stevan Jovanovich, president and CEO of IntegenX, about the company's RapidHIT kit for DNA analysis on the go. All that's needed is to insert the type of swab now widely used to collect DNA often from inside a cheek into the DNA-analysis kit and within 90 minutes, out pops the answer to what an individual's DNA is (not a full genetic analysis but what suffices for identification and perhaps confirming family relationships such as parent-child or sister-brother).
The goal is to get RapidHIT, a portable box-like device with integrated bio-science reagents, chipset, software and applications down to an hour. Jovanovich said there's been field testing with the Palm Bay, Florida, police department. Even the Department of Defense has taken the RapidHIT device to test it with Army volunteers in a Norfolk field exercise in May, he added, noting that one Army officer brought a swab from his son to see what the DNA-linked paternity outcome to him would be (he wasn't disappointed).
"We now have a contract with Homeland Security to develop kinship analysis on this platform," said Jovanovich, and added he expects to soon be able to announce with Northrop Grumman a DoD contract for a few systems.
At the conference, the University of Arizona's Dr Frederic Zenhausern, professor at the university's Center for Applied Nanobioscience and Medicine in the College of Medicine, spoke on the topic of the Rapid DNA analysis kit developed under the university's Microfluidic DNA Analysis System Project.
"It's completely self-diagnostic," he said, showing off a few photos of the box-like device being lugged around. "Everything is built in." The prototype includes a bar-coding system and touch screen, but exactly what the device security would be is not yet determined.
Network Biosystems also has a prototype called Rapid DNA Analysis kit, said to be able to spit out a DNA answer based on a swab insert in an hour or so.
"No manual processing, no reagent loading," said Dr Richard Seldon, executive chairman of Network Biosystems about the 50kg, six cubic-foot container that in its present form has WiFi and RFID reader capabilities and log-in screen.
Another company, Lockheed Martin, said its effort with its partners is now in "beta design," according to Dr Joan Bienvenue, programme manager and chief scientist there.
Waiting to test machines
The job of officially determining whether any of these devices might work and whether they should be certified is falling to Dr Thomas Callaghan, senior biometric scientist, biometric analysis section, FBI Laboratory and his staff, which is coordinating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Callaghan noted no company or organisation has officially submitted any Rapid DNA analysis kit for review yet, and cautioned that it will be some time before any decisions can be made on how exactly any of this will be put to use in the field.
"We're waiting to test the machines," he said, noting one "big issue" is whether they can be put in the hands of people without the kind of formal, high-level training and degrees typical in a laboratory environment today. He added: "We haven't identified any hurdles that would prohibit putting Rapid DNA in existing labs."
Hopeful about the progress of what might lead to a revolution in DNA-based analysis, Callahan said some long-term planning is being done to foster an orderly system in which local, state and federal law enforcement could share DNA-related information that one day might be analysed right on the scene where DNA is collected. He says it would be desirable for equipment to have communications abilities to facilitate this.
Homeland Security use
One pent-up need for a rapid DNA analysis kit is coming for the Department of Homeland Security's citizenship and emigration services, according to Christopher Miles, biometrics programme manager at DHS.
Speaking at the conference, he noted government workers trying to assist applicants wanting to enter the US are discovering there's a considerable amount of fraud in terms of what these applicants say about family relationships. It's often lies about children and other relatives that aren't really theirs, which can boil down to illegal human trafficking.
The uncomfortable realisation that the government might be wasting a huge amount of time reading fraudulent documents and listening to lies was a lesson learned a few years ago in trying to help refugees in Kenya that wanted to emigrate to the US. In that instance, the US government took about 500 DNA samples, did a lab analysis to verify family relationships, and found out 80% were fraudulent, Miles said.
The US does think that today, it may often be the case that "children are smuggled into the port of entry as a family member of someone else," said Miles. Since the US gets 3,700 applications every day to sponsor relatives to come to the US, there's hope that some kind of Rapid DNA analysis toolkit eventually be used to verify relationships claims right on the spot.