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Contractors Selling Faster Way to Run DNA Tests

As DNA identification technology advances and becomes easier and quicker to use, contractors are finding sales opportunities at the Pentagon and other security agencies. Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman said last month that, partnered with IntegenX, it won a contract to supply a rapid human DNA identification system to the Army’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency.

Alan Leckenby, vice president of identity and business solutions for Northrop Grumman’s information systems business, said the award moves the company into a new area of biometrics. “Numerous local, state and national ... security agencies use DNA-based human identification to assist in decision-making,” he said. But “in the laboratory, it takes a long time to process DNA samples. ... Shortening up the timeline is critically important” on the battlefield.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, too, is focused on more-rapid DNA testing. The company has been partnering with Zygem Microlab in Charlottesville for about four years to develop small plastic chips and an associated instrument that together allow for DNA testing. The chip uses microfluidic chemical processing — which refers to using very small samples and chemicals to conduct the analysis — to allow quick, portable and relatively inexpensive DNA testing.

Conventional DNA testing requires six pieces of pricey lab equipment and processing time of about eight to 10 hours, if there’s no backlog, said John Mears, director of biometrics and identity management solutions within Lockheed’s information systems and global solutions civil unit.

“We’re talking about being able to take something as simple as a cheek swab ... stick it in the machine and have a DNA identification in about an hour,” said Mears, noting that it does not require trained laboratory technicians. The technology is only designed at this point to analyze the DNA that allows for identifying an individual, but Mears said future applications could include verifying family relationships for immigrant petitions or identifying food pathogens. “We’ve gone through several revisions of the prototype,” Mears said of Lockheed’s product. “I expect we’ll have something that’s marketable by the middle of next year.”

Mears said the company sees the military, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department as potential buyers.

Leckenby too said Northrop is seeing promise in the technology, particularly as the cost goes down as units are produced in larger quantities.

“I think the high degree of accuracy is going to be very appealing,” he said. “It is expensive upfront when you’re at this stage of development, but the prices have come way down and will continue to go down.”

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