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Advanced DNA Forensics Lab Coming to Southeast Texas

Harris County is transforming an abandoned bakery plant into a futuristic DNA analysis center.

A new state-of-the-art DNA forensics laboratory under construction in Harris County, Texas, could make some types of advanced gene analysis a common practice in the region.

The project will quadruple the size of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences’ genetics laboratory, allowing scientists to better assist law enforcement agencies in solving crimes. It will also eventually provide cutting-edge DNA sequencing to uncover genetic factors that lead to sudden cardiac death in children.

The 16,000-square-foot facility will be a welcome respite for laboratory workers. The lab’s 41 employees have outgrown their current 4,000-square-foot space, making detailed DNA analysis work a painstaking and crowded process, according to Dr. Roger Kahn, director of the Harris County Forensic Genetics Laboratory.

Kahn called his shop one of the most productive DNA labs in the country, producing more than 3,000 reports per year. While advances in automation have helped make operations more compact, he said the tasks that genetic researchers do require more room.

“Some aspects of DNA testing simply require a lot of space, like the initial examination of evidence,” Kahn said. “It requires large tables to lay out comforters, clothing, bed sheets, that sort of thing. You need enough space around so that people don’t interfere with one another.”

The lab will occupy a portion of the space once home to a Nabisco baking plant, which now houses the Texas Medical Center. But the project isn’t cheap, according to KTRK-TV in Houston. The renovation work will cost approximately $7 million, and Harris County is picking up the entire tab.

Kahn said he expects the building to be ready in late October and for the lab to move to the new location by the end of 2012.

Aggressive Expansion

The lab’s primary function will stay the same — comparing DNA samples taken from crime scenes to those from suspects. But Kahn has high hopes for expanding the lab’s role in research. The lab has a federal grant to develop a system to sequence specific portions of DNA that are related to sudden cardiac death in infants and young people.

“This is a developing science that has been too costly to be available routinely for the medical examiner to use as information for an autopsy,” Kahn explained. Working in tandem with colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine, the idea is to develop a low-cost way of doing this specialized DNA sequencing.

Kahn said the systems needed to do the work have been designed and are currently being tested. He expects to start doing the advanced sequencing at some point in 2013. The technology consists of highly accurate instruments that perform next-generation DNA sequencing. The specialized equipment is designed to determine long DNA sequences.

Doing a long gene sequence for a baby who passed away from sudden cardiac death now costs $30,000 to $50,000, Kahn said. But with the system being developed jointly by Kahn’s team at the Harris County Forensic Genetics Laboratory and the Baylor College of Medicine, the cost might drop to less than $1,000.

“[We’re] looking for changes in those DNA sequences, [and] when we find one that was previously identified as associated with sudden cardiac death, that permits the pathologist to report that to the family,” Kahn said. “Then the family can seek additional information, or their doctor may modify their diet or activities, or provide medication to keep them safe.”

“These are revolutionary systems,” Kahn added, regarding the DNA sequencing technology. “They can produce this information in a very small machine at a very low cost. It’s a huge step forward.”

The lab will eventually be used for training purposes. Kahn said he also envisions the lab servicing other counties and providing genetic analysis on a regional basis.