DNA advances have been made in fits and starts. A breakthrough on a system in one laboratory doesn’t necessarily translate to computers in other places, even sometimes within the same building.
But Parabon NanoLabs, the company known for its advances in DNA phenotyping, is developing a software platform to bring together the latest breakthroughs, from familial searching, to next-generation sequencing, making it available to even average analysts.
The company’s two-year federal contract is for developing a platform that will level the playing field, and set the same rules of the game, from lab to lab.
“We’re trying to bring a lot of the tools that currently reside in research labs, and make them accessible,” said Steven Armentrout, the Parabon CEO. “We’re supporting a variety of data types coming off different platforms and different instruments.”
The “Keystone” project, a working title, aims to be a platform that will be open architecture, to allow for plug-ins fitting a standardized system.
So the complex and sometimes-arcane programs that offer some of the best promise in difficult cases could get universal use, once everyone is plugging into the same system, Armentrout said.
“All of that promise that is high-throughput sequencing, SNP genotyping, and Y-STR analysis – all of that potential will just be more readily accessible to the average analyst,” the CEO said. “We’re trying to take very complex tools and present them in a way that’s more user friendly and consistent.”
Parabon will be working with the DNA experts at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Bruce Budowle and a team at the Institute of Advanced Genetics there have already been pioneering some of the latest sequencing, whether it is called HTS or next-generation sequencing (NGS). For instance, the UNT genetic experts developed a tool called the STRait Razor – a program assessing short-tandem repeat (STR) alleles in the massive amounts of data.
“The analytical tools developed by the forensic research community for next-generation DNA analysis are not designed to interoperate, and they require considerable expertise,” said Budowle, in a statement released by Parabon. “Keystone will integrate these tools, under a common software infrastructure, facilitating the use of these powerful methods of DNA analysis.”
“You hear about all these great advances but one you get down and work with the tools, they’re very complex, and they don’t interoperate in any way,” added Armentrout. “We’re hoping to establish an interoperability that will make for a quick learning curve, and resulting efficiencies.”
Parabon announced the two-year contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. The winning bid was the result of a DOD Rapid Innovation Fund solicitation. (The company declined to speak about the financials of the terms, but a two-year contract listed on the DOD site indicates a first-year $1 million base award, selected in March out of five offers).
Armentrout said the company will be continuing to work on its signature program, the “Snapshot” phenotyping software. Over the summer, one of its latest uses was a composite of the serial killer who killed three members of the Bennett family in their Aurora, Colo. home on the night of Jan. 16, 1984. Police have been checking on leads generated by the new image. Snapshot’s predictive sketching will be one of the first plug-ins for the new system.
Once all the tools are assembled in one kit, DNA could prove to be even more revolutionary than it has already proven to be in two decades for criminal forensics.
“It’s only now just beginning to be realized,” Armentrout said.