GENEWATCH
 
THE BUSINESS OF DNA FORENSICS
By CRG staff - interview with Paul Billings
 

Paul Billings, MD, PhD, is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics and Chief Medical Officer of Life Technologies, Corp. This interview represents his own views rather than those of Life Technologies.

 

GW: Is the business of DNA forensics a recent addition at Life Technologies?

PB: No, we've been involved in this space for some time.

GW: Is it a field that's growing recently?

PB: We don't stay in business lines that don't grow! That wouldn't be doing our job for our shareholders. DNA forensics has grown well over the last ten years or so. We think it will grow as the technologies become better and better. As they get more specific, and also better in terms of lower cost-and potentially faster-there will be more use for them.

GW: Who might those future customers be? Are we talking about small crime labs?

PB: I don't think so. One of the issues to date has been that the efficiencies of the current system where it is deployed aren't optimal, so you have catch-up work in those areas. Then you have new populations, whether they be countries coming online or different subgroups within the countries coming online, where there would be greater need.

As an example, there are large population centers in the world where this technology hasn't really been applied or used as a forensic tool. They have crimes where people are wrongly accused and need to be exonerated, and they have crimes where this material may help to find the real criminal. So what I'm really saying is that the technology is very accurate, very quick, and not very costly, and it allows some of the developing markets to take advantage of it as well.

GW: Can you give a quick idea of what technologies exactly we're talking about-what are the products themselves?

PB: We make the components of DNA forensic tests. We provide the amplification and analytic tools, whether they be genotyping for the variable CODIS regions or direct sequencing of that material-which doesn't go on very much, but as sequencing becomes less expensive it may go on more. We provide all the instruments and reagents to allow laboratories to do that.

GW: Is there any consulting that goes along with this work?

PB: We would be asked to consult with a lab in a country, where a contract to provide forensic identification exists. It could be the government lab-the model for delivering this stuff varies from country to country. Some are governmental labs, some are contract labs. We would consult with the lab directors to make sure they are doing the absolute top-quality work. Our interest is that whatever forensic DNA analysis is going on, that it be absolutely the best quality, so that the number of scientific or laboratory errors is reduced to an absolute minimum.

GW: As Life Technologies is moving into a new country-maybe it's France, maybe it's somewhere like India or South Africa-beyond just the technical aspects, how is the company involved in sowing the seeds for ...

PB: We're not. The company stands for ethical and appropriate use of DNA technologies. As an example, at the last meeting of all our employees-we have about 10,000 employees-the featured guest was a guy who had been exonerated by the Innocence Project, and they had used our technology. He basically went up there and said, "I owe you my life." He was talking both about the lawyers at the Innocence Project and also about the fact that the technology existed and was done properly so that a sample that had existed for-I don't know how long, but he had been on death row for 18 years-that sample could be extracted and analyzed using our methods to exonerate him.

We stand for the ethical and appropriate use of high quality identification technology to assist the judicial process. The decision about whether that evidence is appropriate for a country's judicial process is not our business. All they can know is that if they decide to apply it, we're going to make sure, to the best of our ability, that whatever they are applying is good science and is done properly.

GW: On the technical end, sure, but what do you take into consideration if you're working with a country where there are concerns about how the technology might be misused, however good the science is?

PB: Like all corporate citizens, we're cognizant of countries that are imbalanced in how they apply certain policies. We try to influence those countries in appropriate and legal ways. But on the other hand, we also believe that sloppy science or poor technology doesn't serve anybody's aims.

There are obviously disputes at hand about what is the proper balance of when the technology has the opportunity to impact the system, whether your judicial system involves a debate between the prosecutor and the state, and the defense, who gets to use the technology and how much probity it has on both sides. That's a balancing debate, and different people come out in different ways on that.

I happen to believe personally in broad access. For instance, I don't believe that all arrestees should have their DNA taken and they should become the pool. Or, at least, if you start to go down that road, you have to have a totally non-discriminatory policy, which is that everyone in the country has to give a DNA sample as a part of citizenship. I think you could make an argument that that would be a fairer system.

GW: How much do you know about some of the specific projects that Life Technologies is working on right now? For instance, there's a new database that they're working on in Russia that Life Technologies appears to have some role in-maybe just supplying technology, maybe more than that?

PB: I don't know many specifics as the medical and forensic functions are separate. I know that we have a contract in Russia, to provide them technology, but I don't know anything about the database that they're trying to develop or not.

GW: What about in India? There's a controversial DNA database bill being discussed there; also, earlier this year, Life Technologies established a distribution center in Bangalore. Is that a coincidence?

PB: We are one of the largest suppliers of general research reagents to the laboratory industry in India, so the fact that we would build a distribution center there may have nothing to do with the forensics line at all.

GW: I'm curious about how it works for a private company to work with a national government, setting up a new national forensic DNA database. Does the company approach the country?

PB: No, the other way around. In general, the policy issue is resolved in whatever way that particular political entity resolves those issues; so they decide that as a matter of policy, they want to do some forensic DNA identification program. Then they usually put out a request for proposals, and providers-we're not the only provider, but I would say we're the premier provider-the providers bid, and the country makes a determination based on those bids. It's like getting a grant: they're deciding who they want to invest in.

GW: When you're responding to the request for proposals, what kinds of things are being asked? What is this contract? Is it just to provide technology?

PB: Yes, almost always. there are usually components of [the request for proposals], and maybe they put it all out as a single request, or sometimes they break it up, but there is the supplying of a laboratory with the components so it can do this kind of testing, and do it effectively; then there's kind of an informatics solution, where you need software that can take stored data and compare it to new data; and then you need all the informatics to be able to database the stuff so that you can make those comparisons. Then, of course, there's a huge amount of quality assurance involved, to make sure that once the laboratory is doing these analyses, there are controls, and that the quality of the lab result remains high. So companies bid on different parts of that. As I say, sometimes it's a one or two component request, sometimes it's a multi-component request.

GW: I was under the impression that there was more happening where companies would be taking the initiative with a country-maybe where there is some interest happening already-

 

PB: The fact that there is a company like Life Technologies which has a business line to supply the labs that do DNA identification or forensics ... we would be the last ones you would ask for an opinion about whether you should be doing this program or not, because we have a clear conflict of interest. We think that there's value in DNA forensic programs, there's no doubt about that. So if you're still in the debating stage about whether you should have a national database or how big that program should be, that's an issue that you would not invite Life Technologies to participate in, because again, we have a point of view. Once you've established what you want to do, then you ask us in, because we can tell you what can be done at top quality.

GW: I guess what I meant was less about at what stage a country would ask industry to come in so much as where industry takes initiative; there's a marketing department looking for new customers, and where there might be an opportunity to be proactive, to go in and lobby.

PB: LIFE is not a lobbying organization.  We are experts in the technical aspects of DNA forensics.  When asked by those who are making policy, we will provide technical advice and specifications. Similar to  my work at CRG, we would be asked as experts to consult with the political forces so that they would know at least what is possible and what is not, in terms of the quality, scope and cost of the technology. I'm sure if one looks back at the legislative history in various countries, or the processes by which certain proposals have come forward, I'm sure that there has been consultation with industry as these programs get developed. But everybody knows what our point of view is, so it's really as technical experts, not as policy experts, that we're consulted. And we try to be influential in that narrow area.

GW: I'm not just thinking of Life Technologies-I mean, there are other companies that do this work, right?

PB: Well, sure. In businesses like ours, there is training and awareness of laws including the Corrupt Business Practices Act, which basically talks about bribing officials to get markets created in other countries and things like that. We don't want to be involved in anything like that in any way, so there's lots of training that our sales and business units receive about what the law is, what's allowable and what's not acceptable or legal. It really does not serve our purposes at all to get involved in practices that are inappropriate, illegal or unethical anywhere or that might appear to be so. It does serve our business interests to be a high quality technical consultant, so that whatever programs are initiated are of the best quality.

GW: Are you aware of any examples, not necessarily at Life Technologies, where this industry is involved in lobbying?

PB: Life Technologies participates mostly indirectly through larger association membership and lobbying in Washington, but we don't have any lobbying outside the United States that I'm aware of. Outside our own business, I'm not aware of any specific instances, but as you know, some questionable practices and potential violations have come to light over the years in other industries.

GW: As Chief Medical Officer, you do a lot of work with personalized medicine. Do you see any particularly noteworthy similarities or differences between that work and forensic DNA work?

PB: Well, yes and no. There's no interplay except at the level of the technologies being the same-the similarity of DNA isolation for the purposes of personalized medicine versus forensics-but there's no mixing of the business units or information or anything like that.

There are similarities involving needing good controls; supplying laboratories that are doing personalized medicine with protocols that allow them to do very sensitive, very specific testing that yields the optimal amount of information; understanding the role that comparative databases play in understanding some of the information being generated in personalized medicine; and also understanding that all information has a yin and a yang to it. Even if you have very accurate forensic identification, how are you using it? It can be used by the prosecution, or it can be used by the defense. Both have legitimate roles; the question is, do both have equivalent access? Similarly, in personalized medicine, the information can be highly proven and very useful, it can be speculative, or it can be bogus. So what is the quality of the evidentiary base that justifies its use? While we don't have any special expertise in that, we do recognize that it's an important component in the final analysis.

One other thing that I think is quite unique about Life Technologies: we're really about universal access to this technology. We're driving very hard to improve its quality and reduce its cost, to the extent that people all over the world and from all sorts of different socio-economic structures can have access to it.

GW: Do you mean personalized medicine or forensics?

PB: Personalized medicine. I've always thought that if you really believe that personalized medicine-which, to my mind, is medicine that reflects integrated knowledge of your own personal biology-if that's a truly better medical paradigm than group-based medicine (or phenotypic medicine, if you like), then everyone should have access to it. And for everyone to have access to it, you're going to have to have technologies which are relatively inexpensive.

GW: Would you say the same thing about forensics?

PB: Sure. As I said, I have a problem with selective databases in forensics. If you're going to go down an identification rubric, the question is: is it fairer to have universal identification or selected groups, like convicted people or arrestees? If you allow that this is an important technology that improves the justice system, then the question becomes: how do you best construct a system that optimizes that benefit? Fingerprinting, for routine identification, forensics, passports, driver's licenses and other aspects of life as a citizen, is almost universal.  How should that be constrained in the future?  If a more accurate but also affordable technology becomes available, should we adopt it?  I don't think we've reached complete policy conclusions on questions like these yet.


 
 
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