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Genomics Without Borders

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Goodwill efforts from genomics firms could help ease suffering in the former Yugoslavia

 

By Jennifer Friedlin

 

When instrument heavyweight Applied Biosystems starts giving its products away, there must be a good reason. In the former Yugoslavia, equipment donations and price reductions from ABI, Millipore, and Promega, among others, offer hope to tens of thousands of people trying to reconcile themselves with a tormented past.

The International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization based in Sarajevo, is employing DNA sequencers to identify thousands of skeletal remains from victims of the recent Balkan war.

“We are now making major steps forward to identify the bodies,” says Edwin Huffine, director of ICMP’s DNA program, noting that the organization will soon begin DNA testing on the 3,000 to 3,500 bodies that have so far been exhumed.

ICMP estimates that there are about 30,000 missing people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and an additional 10,000 throughout the rest of the former Yugoslavia, most likely buried in mass graves that have yet to be located and unearthed. Though more than two-thirds of the victims are thought to be of Muslim origin, Serb and Croat remains are also expected to turn up.

ICMP will use its bevy of ABI sequencers — one 3100 and four 377s, the latter of which were donated — to get DNA signatures from bone samples. At the same time, the organization is also collecting and analyzing blood samples from relatives and building a database that will match the victims with their families.

To date, ICMP has collected some 12,000 blood samples and is working to teach people about the organization’s activities in order to encourage more Bosnians with missing relatives to use their services.

Promega, which donated nuclear DNA testing kits, and the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory have helped train local scientists to use the sequencers and to work with the blood and degraded bone samples. Other companies, including Millipore and VWR Scientific Products, have also contributed to the effort.

At ICMP’s facility in Tuzla, a town in eastern Bosnia, a multi-ethnic team of five scientists is currently in the process of identifying remains from bodies found in the mass graves in Srebrenica, where perhaps the worst massacre of the war occurred. After the DNA is isolated, the scientists will filter it through one of the shiny new ABI DNA sequencers, generating a genetic fingerprint. That information will then be entered into ICMP’s database, which constantly searches for matches.

Most recently, ICMP has received mitochondrial DNA sequencing strips from Roche. The strips, which are currently being validated by ICMP researchers, are designed to detect 50 positions in the mitochondrial DNA where a high rate of SNPs occurs. If the strips prove to be discriminating enough, they would allow researchers to complete 10 times more profiles per week than a sequencer permits.

The impact of all of this technology could prove staggering. In 1998, experts estimated that it would cost $100 million and take up to 80 years to identify the missing using traditional DNA testing methods. Now, ICMP expects that it will be able to test 20,000 sets of human remains and 100,000 blood samples over five to seven years for a total cost of $10 million, an effort that could help to bring closure for a large number of grieving people.

“If you or I went missing today, 10 to 12 people might care,” says Gordon Bacon, ICMP’s British chief of staff. “Multiply that by the 40,000 people who are missing throughout the former Yugoslavia and it’s a massive amount of sadness on a daily basis.”

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