Developing DNA data
RCMP partnership markets research
by Dave Todd
From the road, the sterile complex of towers at 1200 Vanier Parkway looks pretty uninspiring. Out-of-towners who happen past are sometimes taken aback by the small but elegant signs that identify the complex as the national headquarters of the RCMP. They might be far more surprised to learn of the scientific marvels behind its bland walls and the world-class research and business partnerships to which these are giving rise - like the one with Anjura Technology Corporation.
This is not only home base for one of the world's most famous police agencies; it is ground zero for the most advanced forensic research laboratory in the world when it comes to DNA analysis or, as some call it, "molecular sleuthing."
In 1998, as part of "Operation Persistence" - the work of recovering and genetically identifying the casualties of the Swissair-111 crash off Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia - this laboratory led the DNA-typing team and coordinated the work of 50 biologists across Canada. The identification of 218 of the 229 victims was completed in about three months, perhaps one-quarter what it might have taken, in a rush against time to recover human remains from the ocean. From this same lab a decade earlier, the birth of the Canadian forensic DNA program began. That pioneering effort resulted in many early procedures becoming standard in today's labs across North America and Europe. The kit developed and field tested at the Swissair disaster site is now the standard for collecting biological samples for DNA testing.
And it is in this lab that the man whose teams have been at the centre of such work-Dr. Ron Fourney - is working with molecular biologists and research planners in pursuit of new advances in DNA identification methods and technologies. The great dream: the possible development within a decade of a silicon "biochip" capable of ensuring positive identification from DNA evidence at a crime scene.
Imagine, says Fourney, something with the size and ease of handling of the bar-code reader recorders that couriers use to register pickups and deliveries might be used to determine if a DNA sample matches that of a suspect. Put simply, what it now takes for one of the world's most sophisticated police laboratories to do today - employing its entire resources and all its quality control systems - might be sized down to where it is easily mobile and could be used at a crime scene as a hand-held device.
If this has the feel of an Orwellian scenario, there is no one more cognizant of that than Fourney. He makes a compelling case for the need to ensure that institutional safeguards are developed so that powerful advances in science do not overwhelm democratic values, introducing the threat that human rights violations become casual affairs. So far, Canada has taken painstaking efforts to prevent abuses by the state.
Concerns about DNA "profiling" were such that the new DNA Identification Act underwent extensive parliamentary hearings three years ago, with especially close scrutiny in the Senate. As a result it became forbidden to take DNA samples from persons merely charged with crimes. In Canada only convicted criminals of certain kinds of serious crimes are subject to their DNA being entered into the new national DNA bank. The bank has been in operation since mid-2000, and the information is available only to police investigators under highly circumscribed rules and access procedures that ensure compliance with provisions of the new legislation. Fourney stressed at great length the degree to which such emphasis on civil society values is critical to the success of the approach the RCMP has embraced in hosting the national DNA data bank facility. The measure of this is the faith that Canadians ultimately have in its integrity.
"What's important here is that we're building a complete system," he said. "There are a whole lot of groups that are looking at us, including police agencies from Britain, the Netherlands, even Singapore, to see what we're building. One of the things we offer now, and one of the ways we're going to get our hands on this in terms of assisting other countries that want to work like us, is fitting that into a policy that forensic justice is a foundation of good policing." (See chart.)
Attractive business opportunities arise out of the fact that, as Fourney points out, "Procedures and technologies that we have field-tested and validated right here in the national data bank can be used anywhere in the world. If you are going to build a data bank - and ours cost $10.6 million - you want to follow a recipe of success. The planning concept, the automation, the technologies and the robotics equipment are tied to very advanced software that runs the whole works."
As fortune would have it, one of the keys to it all lay only a few kilometres away from RCMP headquarters. Anjura Technology Corporation competed for and won an RCMP contract to manage tracking the samples of human genetic material that are to be entered into the country's new National DNA Data Bank.
Anjura already had considerable experience in this highly specialized area, derived in part from contract work with the RCMP on the FBI's proprietary DNA software system, CODIS. In the case of the RCMP, the $3-million-plus contract that produced the licencing agreement with Anjura led to development of an independent business line known as STaCS™, which stands for Sample Tracking and Control System. Its purpose is to support DNA analysis procedures developed by RCMP scientists and fulfill their requirement for meticulous documentation of all processes involved in DNA sampling.
Two years ago, during the competition for the fixed-price product development contract, it became clear to Anjura president Chris Nuttall that the automated software application the RCMP required had to be one tailored to meet quality assurance standards at each sequence of the agency's rigorous laboratory testing regimen.
Meanwhile, Nuttall describes the business relationship as having been invaluable in that "it gets us into the export market and helps the RCMP fulfill its mandate." Inauguration of the DNA bank last year has cleared the way for STaCS to be marketed to DNA data banks in other countries, as well as to forensic and medical research laboratories in Canada. The partnership means Anjura will share revenues from future sales and service contracts with the RCMP, which in turn will help Anjura market the software to potential clients. From a strategic perspective, they see their joint venture as a significant step for Canada in developing export markets in the rapidly expanding bio-informatics field.
The intellectual property rights that have accrued from the RCMP's DNA research program are owned by the Crown, although the Mounties are currently pushing for a better cost-recovery arrangement to benefit the force's further research and development efforts. Part of the case they make is that having a stronger investment platform will position them better to engage potential external partners.
And Anjura is but one example of the several partners involved in the DNA bank. The nation's capital "is a hotbed of technology in bio-development and microchip analysis and what we're going to see in the future as the next generation is probably going to be biochips," says Fourney. During a tour of the spanking new lab facility he presides over, Canada's foremost DNA forensic scientist predicted that while DNA verification is likely to continue for years to come, necessitating laboratory-based confirmation, the promise of "portability" in the field portends huge economies. Development of handheld devices could slash DNA testing costs to a fraction of today's roughly $90 a sample run.
Eva Kmiecic is the deputy commissioner of the RCMP responsible for strategic planning. She says that the force's approach to DNA science development is consistent with a broader evolution of approaches towards policing that the Mounties have been developing for years. In addition, it builds on their interest in evolving sophisticated, strategic business relationships with outside suppliers of goods and services.
"We embraced the philosophy of community policing 10 years ago, building long-term relationships with citizens, with social service agencies and with the governance structure of a community," Kmiecic notes. From that angle, the Mounties' openness to strategic business partnering on the DNA front can be seen as a clear continuity of such an approach.
On the other hand, Kmiecic quickly acknowledges that there is a huge qualitative difference, between community relations and marketing the RCMP's image through licencing arrangements with retailers and entertainment companies like Disney, to building partnerships in connection with something as profound as DNA identification systems.
However, the business consequences of taking a wrong turn could be momentous. When it comes to partnerships that might trade on the RCMP's famous image and sterling reputation internationally, things get particularly tricky, making the choice of who to engage with difficult. There could be serious downsides if unfortunate relationships emerge. That said, Kmiecic wonders where all this could head in terms of future DNA research and development partnerships that might be undertaken. Would everything developed be property of the Crown? Would there be flexibility, under whatever relationship might emerge, for the force and Crown to leverage funds or do venture capital deals?
"I think those are all great questions," says Kmiecic, adding: "We certainly are conscious of federal government and industry's approaches where intellectual property rights are very much accrued to them." But, being careful to distinguish between the DNA research front and any other domains, she added, "However, I think we're going to look at that in the larger context of how we're going to establish an intellectual property policy for the whole RCMP."
Meanwhile, Fourney says, matter of factly with no apparent intention of saying something as profound as it might seem in print: "We go to the ends of the earth to make sure that all the information we put out is valid and reliable."
Dave Todd is Canadian correspondent for FT Energy Insight, an online energy news service of the Financial Times of London. He is also a 16-year veteran of daily newspaper and news service journalism in Canada.