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Casework Genetics Chooses Illumina Chips for Forensic Services

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By Justin Petrone

Casework Genetics, a Stafford, Va.-based forensics-technology provider, is validating an array-based technique that it hopes will be adopted by law-enforcement labs seeking a more "precise" and "efficient" way to solve crimes, CEO Kevin McElfresh told BioArray News last week.

McElfresh said that Casework hopes to commercialize the technique, which uses the Illumina HumanOmni1-Quad BeadChip, by year end in order to upgrade its own offering and to gain an advantage over rival firms that use older technology.

The company will offer forensic services to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, but will also offer its analytical tools to other labs and will help them get set up to perform array-based testing in house. McElfresh said that Casework, which was founded in February, also expects to take part in government-funded research projects with a number of agencies, but "mostly" with the US Department of Defense.

"The need for a new technology was directly due to the limitations of the old technology," McElfresh said of the decision to launch a new service. He said that Casework and other firms have been using short-tandem-repeat DNA assays using capillary electrophoresis. "The biggest and critical limitation of STRs is that they could not de-convolve mixture samples."

For example, "many people touch a gun, including the suspect of a crime," he said. "STRs will not provide a compelling answer to the question of whether or not the suspect’s DNA is on the gun. The high-density array technology will."

McElfresh added that Casework decided on offering SNPs because the "'Who’s on the gun?' question is the same as the 'Who is in the [genome-wide association] study?’ question." He said that array technology is "mature" and "ready to be implemented" for forensic applications.

Casework's platform is partially based on internally developed technology, and partially based on technology developed at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix and the University of California in Los Angeles, to which it holds an exclusive license, McElfresh said. In a PLoS Genetics paper published last year, a team of researchers from TGen and UCLA led by David Craig demonstrated the ability to use SNP arrays to identify the DNA of specific individuals within a complex genomic DNA mixture.

Craig, who is associate director of TGen's Neurogenomics Division, said in a statement that Casework's technology "has the ability to significantly impact the field of forensic identification." In the same statement, Casework Chief Scientific Officer Ron Sosnowski said that the new platform will allow the firm to address the "long-standing problem of analyzing forensic crime samples containing DNA from multiple sources" and that Casework now offers the ability to "process and interpret these frustratingly difficult mixture samples to provide judicially-important results."

It is unclear how lucrative a market forensics might be for array companies. Illumina has stated on several occasions that it expects its array business to continue to expand into what it refers to as "applied markets" — agricultural biotechnology, cytogenetics, direct-to-consumer testing, and also forensics.

This week the San Diego vendor paid $850,000 to license part of Orchid Cellmark's diagnostic and forensics intellectual property portfolio. The agreement includes $150,000 in potential milestone payments, and unspecified royalties, according to an announcement from the firms. Orchid retains the rights to use the licensed patents in all fields of use.

Thomas Bologna, Orchid Cellmark's president and CEO, said in a statement that the agreement will enable Orchid to work with Illumina to "strengthen our long-term competitive position in providing DNA forensic testing services." Further details of the deal were not discussed.

Affymetrix also has customers who are using its SNP chips in forensics. The company has in the past positioned its GeneChip Human Mitochondrial Resequencing Array for such projects. For example, a 2007 study by scientists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology evaluated Affy's Mitochondrial Resequencing Array for use in forensics applications.