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UWI's DNA gold mine

CARIGEN earning millions from research

BY JANICE BUDD Associate Editor - Sunday buddj@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 27, 2011    

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IN 2007, two years after its creation, Caribbean Genetics (CARIGEN) burst into the public spotlight with research suggesting that more than 30 per cent of Jamaican men were not the biological fathers of their children.

The revelation of this "jacket" phenomenon not only caused many less than honest mothers to cringe, but pushed many suspicious cuckold fathers to discreetly seek out the DNA-testing services.

A few years later, the University of the West Indies-run research company used Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) evidence to identify the remains of 11-year-old Ananda Dean, the victim of one of the most horrific child murders in the country's recent history. With only bones to work with, the CARIGEN team was able to identify that the body was that of the little girl whose disappearance, rape and murder in September 2009 rocked the nation.

The facility was the first, and so far, the only private independent commercial laboratory to provide forensic DNA and paternity services to the courts, academia, the medical fraternity and private citizens across the Caribbean.

Paternity testing services using DNA is still the oil in CARIGEN's business engine in 2011, as demand for these tests continues to be high — roughly 20 to 25 cases per week, at $23,000 a pop. In fact, paternity testing — whether private or court-ordered — generated approximately $21 million in revenue for the company last year alone. It represents 80 per cent of the company's revenue.

Five to 10 per cent of CARIGEN's earnings come from contract research — doing actual testing for other departments at the university.

"We build into the project the cost of doing the test. So rather than them sending it to the US to do the test, we do it here," said director, Professor Wayne McLoughlin.

Forensic services also contribute to the company's bottom-line with the overflow from the Government forensics lab often ending up in the campus-based facilities. McLoughlin added that the unit's state-of-the-art set-up, complete with robotic extraction of DNA, has also lured members of the legal fraternity seeking independent, reliable and modern testing of forensic evidence on behalf of their clients.

According to McLoughlin, anyone in Jamaica seeking similar services will likely have to seek it overseas at much greater cost.

However, CARIGEN has no intention of resting on its laurels and is now trying to tap into much more fertile commercial soil.

"The newest area that we most recently moved into is molecular diagnostics," said McLoughlin.

In May 2009, CARIGEN propelled itself more fully into the world of the genetic testing business, with the expansion of its services to include DNA-based screening for parental genetic disorders including Down's Syndrome. The new tests were more affordable and faster than before and have the same level of accuracy, which has caused local medical practitioners to take all their business to CARIGEN.

"We also look at sexually transmitted diseases, STIs. Again, it is an area that is in demand, for example, Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, Trichomonas... it is a public health issue and it is easier to test this way and much quicker," McLoughlin explained.

He said in the past, with the traditional microbiological method, with Gonorrhoea, for example, you had to wait up to four or five days for test results to diagnose these STIs. With the DNA method, you can get those test results in 24 hours. This is quickly growing into a powerful revenue generator for CARIGEN.

But the facility has launched into an even newer and potentially more lucrative field.

"Infectious diseases diagnostics, this is a new and developing area using DNA technology, and where the business is going. It is expected to grow in worth to $2 billion. It is a big business worldwide," he explained.

"This means from the area of development of the technologies, meaning the kits that are used (and) you have companies that develop these testing kits, to the users of the kits, to doing the diagnostics, that whole industry is worth billions of dollars, billions," he said.

This fast-evolving area of genetic testing is where the business of DNA technology is going and the university, through CARIGEN, is determined to go along for the very lucrative ride.

According to Professor McLoughlin, the university has been positioning itself to capitalise on this aspect of its operations from the inception of Caribbean Genetics in 2005.

"We saw this from then, this was in our business plan from then," the molecular biologist told the Sunday Observer.

He explained that the fine-tuning and developing of the techniques and the testing kits that they use were some time in the making, but they have finally started to operationalise this service.

The genetics testing and research facility, which has a small staff of four doctors, has set its sights on even bigger goals in the field of animal genetics. The team has started looking at determining pedigree using DNA and its applications for genetic tagging and tracking genealogy for horses, household pets like dogs and cats, and even cattle.

"There is a huge problem with billions of dollars lost to praedial larceny per year," said McLoughlin. "The agriculture ministry has been using ear tags as an identification system, but you know the thieves are smart and the ear tags don't follow the carcass of the animal, which is often butchered in the field. So what we are setting up (in collaboration with the ministry) is a data base of cattle. So we will go to farms, take DNA samples, do the profiles and set up the database. So if you steal a cow, once you are caught, samples are taken and we do the identification. It will be a deterrent."

The genetic research facility is also on an intensive DNA-driven search for disease-resistant scotch-bonnet peppers after local species fell prey to a virus that has decimated crops.

Another venture is the search for a genetic method to rid the country of the dreaded Lethal Yellowing that wiped out the local coconut population decades ago. That venture is being sponsored by the Coconut Industry Board and there is great optimism that the country will finally be able to benefit from growing and exporting coconuts and coconut by-products.

CARIGEN, aside from being a working commercial enterprise, is also a teaching facility which falls under the umbrella of the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, where medical undergraduate and graduate students learn forensic analysis. The brand new master's programme in forensic science, which the department started just last year, was over-subscribed.

It's a trend likely to continue, said McLoughlin.

"This year, there were 118 applications online, of which we can only take 30-35 (students). This year, we only took 27, because it's a hands-on programme and everyone has to be able to access the labs," he said.

In January next year, CARIGEN hopes to move into the multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art, glass and steel behemoth currently under construction on the far-side of the campus, close to the University Hospital of the West Indies.

"We don't have the space to accommodate any more (students) and of course, the aged facilities we have are spread out all over the place. So the idea is that we want to have one complex where we will have all facilities in one," he said. "It costs more to operate the current way, because you can't take a sterile tube and walk over to another building elsewhere on the campus."

CARIGEN will have a wing of the new building all its own and has been promised by the UWI administration that it will have the best of equipment to take advantage of the expanding and hugely profitable area of genetic science.

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