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
‘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.