Arizona Technology and Innovation: Rapid DNA Testing

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After Osama bin Laden was killed, his identity was quickly verified through DNA. It likely required massive equipment in a nearby command center, but the UofA is working on technology to make the process more portable. Dr. Frederick Zenhausern, Director of the Center for Applied Nano-bioscience and Medicine at the UA Medical School in Phoenix, discusses the development of Rapid DNA testing equipment.

Ted Simons: After Osama Bin Laden was killed, his identification was verified rather quickly through DNA. The process more than likely involved massive equipment at a nearby command center. But work is underway here in the valley on portable, rapid DNA testing equipment. I recently talked about all this to Dr. Fredrick Zenhausern, he's director of the center for applied nanobioscience and medicine at University of Arizona medical school in Phoenix… Thank you for joining tonight on "Horizon."

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Thank you for inviting me.

Ted Simons: You bet. Let's get a definition of things. What is rapid DNA?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Rapid DNA testing is trying to do the DNA fingerprinting or human identification in a time that allow you to process the sample in much faster way than it has been done conventionally. In place of sticking a cycle time of typically 14 days, you can do that in a few hours.

Ted Simons: So the usual case, 10 to 14 days, something along those lines?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: That's typically the kind of time line that you will have for processing a sample from someone arrested by the police, until you can get a match in the database.

Ted Simons: Extraordinary cases. How quickly county turn around be?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Ultimately, if you have a very high profile case, you can go to, you know, 24, 48 hours.

Ted Simons: So we are all watching these crime shows and it just seems like it's in a snap. All of a sudden all of the information is right there. Not really realistic?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Not yet but maybe coming soon.

Ted Simons: I want to talk about that in a second here. But why, the equipment, we were talking earlier, the equipment is very big. Massive amounts of space needed for most of this DNA identification testing. Why is that?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: So the main issue is based on the fact that when you collect the sample and when you want to look at the genetic matter there's a lot of steps to prepare that sample. That require a lot of different technology to extract that information. And that requires some element of instrumentation that are still not miniaturized.

Ted Simons: Not yet at least but you guys are developing -- is it a smaller version? Is it a faster version? A little bit of both? Talk to us about this.

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: So rapid DNA testing approach is based on the fact that we wanted to shrink inside that cycle time for analyzing the sample. So from 14 days, we are typically at two hours time. And that is enabled by technology by. As well as new Genomic technology that will perform better.

Ted Simons: How big were we before? How big are you now?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Yeah, so typically, a complete process for sample will take a lot of equipment. And the equipment on a 45 feet of bench lab. Our machine is barely a foot of space on the bench.

Ted Simons: Wow. I understand, correct me if I am wrong, you work with the FBI on this?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: So the initial work was really generated with a contract with the FBI, trying to address some of the DNA backlog, we talked about usually 10 to 14 days, something along those lines, extraordinary cases maybe less than a day.

Ted Simons: How fast a turn around now with your equipment that you are developing?
Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: So the system is typically providing a complete measurement from the sample collection from a BUCCHAL swab that you collect to a database that can be providing a match from an individual within two hours.

Ted Simons: Thinks the kind of thing that needs extensive training for those operating the equipment? Is it mostly automated? What do you got here?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: That's the second advantage as well as for the machine is it's very simple user interface. So what the user is doing I loading the sample into a cartridge, plastic cartridge, load the cartridge in the instrument and push a button and go away.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Were you guys, was this particular idea either/or involved in, was seemed to be an awfully fast DNA identification of Osama Bin Laden. Was this kind of technology involved?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: No. The technology is not involved to our knowledge. But it could be ultimately deployed for those kind of mission. And that was really designed for those kind of objective.

Ted Simons: And you are just thinking, obviously, you weren't there. But how do you think they got that DNA match so quickly? If the equipment is that big, something had to be nearby. Right?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: I think sometimes you have an individual, you can maybe have all those equipment within the operation or common center, so the DOD has indeed forensic criminal lab that provides some of those tools, and you can also do some human identification with different biomarker that may not be the one that are typically used in the national database.

Ted Simons: As far as what you are developing here, this smaller, quicker version of identification, how long before this is up and operational to the point where we will be seeing places around the country using it?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: So our system is going to a validation in Europe, to a very large consortium. With the police forces in Germany, Italy, Austria, and Netherland. And will go through that validation of that technology in view of the interface with international database. We will be also starting some work with the FBI in the east within the next few months. And the platform right now is ready for commercialization so we hope to get a system within the next 18 to 24 months on the market.

Ted Simons: Compare costs. The big machines, your machine.

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Typically it's a reduction also in cost with our system that will typically reduce the cost to a sample analysis roughly around $20.

Ted Simons: So eventually, we could see your machine on some of these crime shows?

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Yes. We hope to be on "CSI."

Ted Simons: Very G thanks for joining us tonight.

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern: Thank you very much.

Dr. Frederick Zenhausern:Director, Center for Applied Nano-bioscience and Medicine at the UA Medical School in Phoenix;

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