Ploughshare Innovations, the technology-transfer outfit charged with commercializing discoveries made at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the UK's Ministry of Defence, is seeking licensees for a one-step method for recovering trace amounts of DNA from tiny surface areas for downstream PCR amplification.
Scientists at DSTL have already demonstrated that the technique can effectively identify individuals by generating a full DNA profile from touch DNA samples. As such, the method may have the greatest utility in law enforcement, particularly crime scene investigations, Ploughshare said.
In addition, the method could be useful for food safety and environmental testing, or even infection control and epidemiology, Richard Hebron, a technology transfer executive at Ploughshare, told PCR Insider this week.
Ploughshare and DSTL have disclosed little detail about the method because Ploughshare only recently submitted a PCT patent application covering the technology.
However, Ploughshare noted that DSTL scientists invented the method for field-based military use.
"It was developed for operational purposes … to find a process that could [be rolled out] for minimally trained military personnel … who may not have molecular biology [training]," Hebron said. "[DSTL] wanted to come up with a method that was robust, simple, and truly one-step. A lot of technologies out there claim to be one-step, but this truly is. And it's something that will get a robust recovery of a DNA fingerprint — if not every time, then nearly every time — so you can maximize the use of the materials that you're testing."
Conventional methods involve swabbing trace DNA from an object, purifying it, and processing it ahead of PCR amplification. However, this usually results in the loss of significant amounts of DNA, which may have only been "touch DNA" in the first place.
Touch DNA, also often called contact trace DNA, refers to the DNA recovered from epithelial cells that are left behind when a person touches an object. These cells can be lifted, swabbed, or scraped from the surface of objects; and as few as five to 20 cells are required to obtain a touch DNA sample. However, the resulting amount of DNA is exceedingly scant.
Ploughshare said that the technology developed by DSTL is a sample recovery method that "replaces the pre-PCR sampling, extraction, and purification stages with a single step. This dramatically reduces the time and complexity of the method and minimizes the loss of DNA."
In addition, the increased sensitivity of the method allows samples to be taken from an area of approximately 3 mm2 or possibly less on an object. This is important, Hebron noted, because "you're not removing huge amounts of sample, which further down the line you may want to do additional tests on. And particularly [for] forensic evidence purposes, you'd obviously want to preserve as much of the original sample as you possibly could."
According to Ploughshare, the method can recover less than 50 picograms of DNA from surfaces by minimally trained personnel.
Hebron declined to provide additional details about the new technology, offering only that "it's very simple, and it's a method … a process for one-step recovery of DNA."
DSTL and the UK MoD are developing the method for their own purposes, presumably military, Hebron said.
"But also part of their agreement is to maximize value for taxpayer-funded research and development," Hebron said. "They want to see the benefits of UK government-funded research and development … being realized by industry. That's really their rationale behind setting up Ploughshare — to provide a vehicle to do that."
"They've obviously taken it to a certain stage suitable for their purposes, but to take it that step further, to turn it into a product like consumable kits, they're keen to work with interested companies looking to develop further," he added.
Ploughshare underscored the technology's potential for forensics and food and safety testing. However, Hebron added that another area of interest might be virology, "where you need to recover very small quantities of viral DNA from surfaces, perhaps for viral epidemiology or infection control."
Ploughshare is currently offering option licenses to potential corporate partners to further develop the technology.