DNA Testing Machine Reduces Labs to the Size of a Desktop Printer

By Stew Magnuson

Collecting DNA from would-be immigrants or criminal and terrorist suspects is relatively easy.

It only takes someone to run a cotton swab on the inside of a cheek to collect enough cells to provide a sample.

Receiving the results, though, can take weeks or months because of backed-up laboratories.

Federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, last decade began asking if there was some way to speed up the process. Officials who work in refugee camps wanted a way to verify identities. If a family wanted to immigrate to the United States and had several children, they wanted to ensure that all of them belong to the parents, and they are not part of a human trafficking scheme.

Ideally, a device would take 45 minutes to produce a result and cost about $100 per test, they said.

After six years of development, integenX, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based company, has taken a laboratory that normally encompasses two sterile rooms, about eight instruments and the skills of a highly educated technician and reduced it all into something the size of a desktop copy machine.

The process takes about 90 minutes and costs about $300 per test, which is not quite what USCIS is looking for, but close.

“We’re not there yet. But we’re driving in that direction. But 90 minutes opens up lots of possibilities,” said the company’s Chief Technology Officer Stevan Jovanovich.

The RapidHit 200 Human Identification System promises to radically alter the way law enforcement conducts investigations, he said. All federal agencies and 27 states allow for officers to collect DNA samples from arrested criminal suspects and to enter them into a national database. The database has DNA collected at sexual assault, murder or burglary crime scenes that remain unsolved. The problem is that traditional labs take weeks or months to return a finding, which in some cases allows criminals to be released before police know the results, said Bob Barrett, the company’s head of marketing.  

The 90-minute window will return a result by the time the suspect is finished undergoing normal arrest processing procedures, Jovanovich added.

RapidHit 200 uses microfluidics to process and extract the DNA inside a disposable cartridge, which can do five to eight samples taken from inside a cheek at a time. Since it is enclosed, there is no risk of contamination. The machine itself will cost “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Barrett said, declining to be more specific.

There is a good return on investment for law enforcement agencies since it has the potential to reduce investigators’ workload and force criminals into plea bargains instead of costly trials, Barrett said.

“It is absolutely a huge game changer,” he added.

DHS, the FBI and military and intelligence agency customers have bought some of the machines and are testing them, Barrett said.

It can also be used to quickly identify victims of disasters, he noted.

Barrett said this does not mean the end for the labs. “It takes a lot of routine stuff out of [the technicians’] hands and allows them to focus more on the tough stuff, the things that keep them coming to work every day like the really difficult sexual assault sample that has multiple mixtures in it.”

Topics: Homeland Security, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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