DNA BE­ING USED IN MANY WAYS, BUT LAW STILL AWAITED

While a leg­is­la­tion on it is still awaited, the ge­netic code is be­ing used in many ways — from in­ves­ti­gat­ing crime to draw­ing up a per­son­alised diet plan, trac­ing one’s an­ces­try and even as art­work, writes Nikita Puri

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‘BACK THEN [IN 2013, WHEN ADAM’S GE­NET­ICS STARTED] PEO­PLE THOUGHT IT WAS SCI­ENCE FIC­TION’

SHAH FA­HAD HUSAMI Founder, Adam’s Ge­net­ics

‘THERE’S AN IN­NATE CU­RIOS­ITY TO KNOW WHERE YOU COME FROM’

SALEEM MO­HAMMED Co-founder, Xcode Life

Four years ago, while on a trip to Kullu Val­ley in Hi­machal Pradesh, 24 en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents from Hyderabad got swept away in the Beas river as the flood­gates of a reser­voir were opened unan­nounced. By the time their bod­ies were found, many were un­recog­nis­able.

As­sist­ing the lo­cal team on the spot was a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the State Foren­sic Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory, Hi­machal Pradesh. The team took tis­sue sam­ples from the bod­ies to match with the DNA sam­ples that the foren­sic lab in Andhra Pradesh had col­lected from the vic­tims’ par­ents, says Vivek Sa­ha­j­pal, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor (DNA) at the lab­o­ra­tory. “To save the fam­i­lies the added emo­tional trauma of iden­ti­fy­ing their loved ones and the ex­pense of trav­el­ling all the way to Hi­machal Pradesh, they were no­ti­fied only af­ter a pos­i­tive match was made,” re­calls Sa­ha­j­pal.

More re­cently, the Mumbai Po­lice and the Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tion Depart­ment ar­rested a man last month af­ter his DNA sam­ple matched the ev­i­dence col­lected from two mi­nors who had been raped and mur­dered in 2010. He is also a sus­pect in sev­eral other cases of rape in­volv­ing mi­nors. Over the past few years, the Mumbai au­thor­i­ties have been build­ing a DNA data­bank of those ac­cused of sex­ual of­fences. His was one of the 900 sam­ples.

Deoxyri­bonu­cleic acid, or DNA— the car­rier of all our ge­netic in­for­ma­tion and our ul­ti­mate iden­tity — is be­ing in­creas­ingly put to use for solv­ing crimes, iden­ti­fy­ing miss­ing peo­ple, and a lot more.

Ear­lier this year, the Union Cab­i­net ap­proved the DNA Tech­nol­ogy (Use and Ap­pli­ca­tion) Reg­u­la­tion Bill, 2018. The

Bill, which has been rethought and tweaked mul­ti­ple times since 2007, is slot­ted to be tabled in the up­com­ing win­ter ses­sion of Par­lia­ment.

The Bill states that its pur­pose is to reg­u­late the use of DNA tech­nol­ogy to iden­tify crim­i­nal of­fend­ers, vic­tims, miss­ing and de­ceased per­sons. It also al­lows the use of DNA tech­nol­ogy for cer­tain civil mat­ters, such as parent­age dis­putes, im­mi­gra­tion or em­i­gra­tion, as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies and trans­plan­ta­tion of hu­man or­gans.

While the Bill is yet to be passed, DNA tech­nol­ogy is al­ready blos­som­ing in

In­dia, with pri­vate labs hav­ing sprung up in ma­jor cities from Chen­nai to Delhi.

Though their most pop­u­lar of­fer­ings in­clude pa­ter­nity tests and non-in­va­sive pre­na­tal tests, there is also an uptick in cases of peo­ple want­ing to check their ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion to cancer, di­a­betes, stroke and so on. Pri­vate com­pa­nies and re­searchers are also us­ing peo­ple’s DNA to cus­tomise their di­ets. Some are help­ing peo­ple trace their ori­gins, join­ing the dots in the oral sto­ries passed on about the fam­ily’s an­ces­tors. You even have com­pa­nies that take a sam­ple of your DNA and turn it into a work of art.

Many of these tests come to you in a box at home, and all you have to do is get the process started by swab­bing the in­side of your cheek or col­lect­ing your saliva in a vial.

When it comes to crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the use of DNA ev­i­dence in In­dia has been spo­radic. The fact that DNA pro­fil­ing has not been in­cluded in the In­dian Ev­i­dence Act or the Code of Crim­i­nal Pro­ce­dure is one rea­son for this lapse, says G K Goswami, an In­dian Po­lice Ser­vice of­fi­cer from Ut­tar Pradesh who also holds a doc­tor­ate in the role of DNA ev­i­dence in cases of sex­ual of­fence. “So, it is left to the dis­cre­tion of the courts whether DNA ev­i­dence can be ac­cepted.”

Ac­cord­ing to Gor­don Thomas Honey­well–Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs, even though In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion is 13 times more than the UK’s, while the Euro­pean na­tion does DNA test­ing for 60,000 crime scenes an­nu­ally, In­dia does less than 10,000. Be­sides the un­der-reliance on DNA tech­nol­ogy, cur­rently In­dia has no reg­u­la­tion on how DNA tech­nol­ogy can be used to iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als.

“A lot of peo­ple around the world are sur­prised that it has taken In­dia so long to ta­ble the DNA Reg­u­la­tion Bill, con­sid­er­ing that In­dia was one of the early adopters of the tech­nol­ogy,” says Tim Schell­berg, founder and pres­i­dent, Gor­don Thomas Honey­well– Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs. Based out of Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has worked with over 30 coun­tries to help shape pol­icy and build DNA data­bases to solve crimes.

In­dia first used DNA ev­i­dence in the 1980s. In De­cem­ber 1988, much be­fore Ban­ga­lore be­came Bengaluru, the city’s po­lice cracked the case of a miss­ing 22-year-old woman af­ter match­ing her fam­ily’s DNA with that from the bones they had found in a eu­ca­lyp­tus grove.

De­spite suc­cesses such as these, the use of DNA as ev­i­dence faded away some­where along the way. Per­haps it was be­cause of the com­par­a­tively higher costs or short­age of trained man­power or “lack of will”, says Gandhi P C Kaza, for­mer in­spec­tor-gen­eral of po­lice and di­rec­tor, Andhra Pradesh Foren­sic Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory.

Kaza is the founder of the Hyderabad-head­quar­tered Truth Labs, a not-for profit es­tab­lished in 2007, which is con­sid­ered In­dia’s first pri­vate foren­sic lab­o­ra­tory. “If we have been able to pro­vide foren­sic ev­i­dence at min­i­mal costs (av­er­ag­ing at ~6,000), why not oth­ers?” Kaza asks.

In the last 10 years, Truth Labs has an­a­lysed foren­sic ev­i­dence in thou­sands of cases, and these have also been used in courts. For the past year, on re­quest from the po­lice, Kaza’s team has been build­ing a DNA bank us­ing sam­ples from hun­dreds of un­claimed bod­ies. This data will al­low the po­lice to help the fam­i­lies of these un­known peo­ple with au­then­tic in­for­ma­tion, if and when they come look­ing.

Supreme Court ad­vo­cate Vivek Sood says In­dia needs to pur­sue DNA ev­i­dence more rig­or­ously be­cause “tra­di­tion­ally, our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem has re­lied upon tech­niques such as ex­trac­tion of forced con­fes­sions and plant­ing of weapons”. He adds, “We also tend to rely overly on the oral tes­ti­monies of eye­wit­nesses. The re­sults of DNA ev­i­dence will be un­ques­tion­able.”

In its cur­rent form, the DNA Bill states that all foren­sic labs should be ac­cred­ited. It also calls for a na­tional data­base, which raises con­cerns and se­cu­rity wor­ries sim­i­lar to the kind ex­pressed about the Aad­haar data.

Ad­vo­cates of the Bill are quick to dis­miss these fears. “The data­base will only be to iden­tify crim­i­nal of­fend­ers, vic­tims, miss­ing and de­ceased per­sons,” says Sa­ha­j­pal. “It will never be manda­tory for all cit­i­zens.”

While the de­bate on use of DNA rages on, a num­ber of pri­vate com­pa­nies are al­ready of­fer­ing an ex­ten­sive range of di­rect-to-con­sumer DNA based ser­vices.

Los An­ge­les and Ot­tawa-based DNA11 has, for ex­am­ple, printed over 10,000 can­vases us­ing DNA ac­quired from cheek swabs. A few of these can­vases have re­port­edly made their way to the liv­ing rooms of some Bol­ly­wood celebri­ties. The cost of the paint­ing de­pends on the size of the canvas, and the num­ber of peo­ple whose DNA por­traits you want (fam­ily por­traits are pop­u­lar). Each piece starts up­wards of $199 and canvas sizes vary from 12” x 16” to 36” x 54”.

Un­til five years ago, when Shah Fa­had Husami started Adam’s Ge­net­ics, In­di­ans weren’t this ac­cept­ing of DNA-based goods and ser­vices. “Back then peo­ple thought it was sci­ence fic­tion,” re­calls Husami whose Delhi-based com­pany spe­cialises in help­ing in­di­vid­u­als un­der­stand how they metabolise gluten, car­bo­hy­drates, caf­feine, lac­tose and so on, through DNA test­ing. The com­pany’s in­house coun­sel­lors then help cre­ate a spe­cialised diet for the in­di­vid­ual.

Last year, the In­dian cricket team, in­clud­ing cap­tain Vi­rat Kohli, also turned to Adam’s Ge­net­ics for a DNA di­rected diet plan.

The DNA home-test­ing kit from Adam’s Ge­net­ics, which in­cludes the price of a coun­selling ses­sion and pro­cess­ing of the DNA data, sells at ~25,000. Be­sides in­di­vid­u­als, the com­pany largely caters to cor­po­rate houses and ath­letes.

De­spite con­cerns of how ge­netic data might be used by pri­vate com­pa­nies, the un­tapped field is a po­ten­tial gold mine. In ag­ing Ja­pan, for in­stance, Nestlé has launched a pro­gramme where some 10,000 par­tic­i­pants can send pic­tures of their food, along with their

DNA sam­ples, for per­son­alised nu­tri­tion.

Now, man’s quest for bet­ter­ment lies in not just the prom­ise of a bet­ter fu­ture; it also or­bits around his past. This ex­plains the enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity of an­ces­try tests. While such tests have been com­mer­cially avail­able in the West for over a decade, these are now begin­ning to gen­er­ate in­ter­est and cu­rios­ity in In­dia, too. “There’s an in­nate cu­rios­ity to know where you come from,” says Saleem Mo­hammed, co-founder of Chen­nai-based ge­nomics firm Xcode Life. A Non-Res­i­dent In­dian, who took one such an­ces­try test from Cal­i­for­nia-based 23andMe, found he had at least one male ances­tor who lived on the Rus­sian steppe about 25,000 years ago. This male ances­tor had him­self de­scended from a man from West Asia. The NRI was also told he had at least one ma­ter­nal ances­tor who had ori­gins in South In­dia some 35,000 years ago. But with lim­ited data­base of South Asian in­di­vid­u­als, the NRI’s an­ces­try was clas­si­fied as “broadly South Asian”. This is where Xcode Life comes in. The com­pany aims to build an au­thor­i­ta­tive data­base of South Asian an­ces­try. Cur­rently, it has a ref­er­ence pop­u­la­tion of 35 to 50 kinds of an­ces­tral groups (Pun­jabi, Tamil and so on). It is work­ing on ex­pand­ing this bank.

As mi­gra­tions con­tinue and mar­riages go be­yond the bound­aries of com­mu­ni­ties, the ge­netic in­for­ma­tion of sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions is likely to be more ob­scure. “But ge­net­ics is like soft­ware en­coded in you. You’ll al­ways carry this in­for­ma­tion within you,” says Mo­hammed. His Xcode Life’s home-test DNA an­ces­try kits are avail­able on­line for about ~10,000.

In the ab­sence of reg­u­la­tions, en­trepreneurs like Husami and Mo­hammed are left do­ing a balanc­ing act be­tween in­ter­na­tional guide­lines and their per­sonal prin­ci­ples. Ex­perts say the in­dus­try needs In­dia-spe­cific guide­lines. For in­stance, bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples quickly de­te­ri­o­rate in In­dian heat. “If it isn’t well pre­served, by the time the sam­ple comes to us we find more DNA of a fun­gus or bac­te­ria than of the ac­cused or the vic­tim,” says Sa­ha­j­pal. Ad­di­tion­ally, guide­lines re­cently is­sued by a cen­tral foren­sic lab stated that all bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples should be sent for test­ing within 24 hours. “In Hi­machal Pradesh, it takes more than 24 hours to travel from re­mote ar­eas, es­pe­cially dur­ing mon­soons or snow­fall,” says Sa­ha­j­pal. He says states should have their own set of guide­lines based on the cen­tral pol­icy.

But guide­lines alone won’t be enough. “There has to be some kind of control mech­a­nism to en­sure that DNA col­lec­tion in case of sex­ual as­sault is not left to the sweet will of the in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer, which is the case now. The of­fi­cer must put down a rea­son why DNA wasn’t taken,” says Sa­ha­j­pal.

Amer­i­can crim­i­nol­o­gist Paul L Kirk once said about foren­sics, “This is ev­i­dence that is not con­fused by the ex­cite­ment of the mo­ment. It is not ab­sent be­cause hu­man wit­nesses are… Only hu­man fail­ure to find it, study and un­der­stand it, can di­min­ish its value.”

As we trace our an­ces­try, cus­tomise di­ets ac­cord­ing to our genes and fight crime us­ing DNA as ev­i­dence, one can only hope that fu­ture leg­is­la­tion and its im­ple­men­ta­tion holds up its side of the deal.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: AJAY MO­HANTY

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