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Technology leads to faster detection of terrorism

16 February 2006

New DNA extraction technology leads to faster detection of terrorism, improved food safety

A unique new DNA extraction reagent, developed by New Zealand scientists and being launched on the world market today by ZyGEM, could play a key role in countering terrorism and establishing food safety.

According to eminent scientist Sir Brian Heap who has worked with the European Union, the NATO Science Committee, and is Chairman of the new Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park, faster and high throughput analysis of DNA from samples, made possible by the new ZyGEM enzyme products, could save lives.

Sir Brian says NATO’s Science Committee work, in which he has been involved as UK representative for the past 10 years, involves a 50-nation Security Through Science programme. One of its projects is dealing with issues raised by terrorism.

While it is a civil science programme based on science for peace, it has recently been focusing more on international security issues.

They include food security, environmental safety, radioactive contamination and rapid identification of terrorist dangers to society.

Part of the work involves looking at new diagnostics to identify individuals.

“I think there’s a real possibility of international interest in this new (ZyGEM) product,” Sir Brian says.

The UK, Europe, Canada, US and Australia are now engaged in a debate on extending DNA profiling to all migrants and also children. A DNA database is already kept in the UK on prisoners. In New Zealand a police DNA database holds more than 58,000 profiles. The police have been provided with intelligence leads in 5000 of the 11,000 unsolved cases, from which DNA samples have been tested, since 1998. In the US, more biological evidence from more than half a million crimes has either not been submitted for DNA testing or is backlogged. Of these 52,000 are homicide cases, 169,000 rapes cases and 264,000 involve property crimes. The wait for DNA extraction on forensic samples is six weeks.

Sir Brian says a great deal of work is currently underway to discover whether ZyGEM’s products will also identify viruses.

“It’s early days, but it’s going to be something that’s very important and the consequences will touch many people. In the event of a pandemic, stemming from the avian flu, for example, the ability to do batch analysis with high throughput may save many lives,” Sir Brian says. “It’s important that all the robust results (on the ZyGEM product) are available at that time.”

“Additionally, ZyGEM has developed a new product, phytoGEMTM for extracting DNA from plant material – this would be of great interest to those wanting to track GM crops and could have a significant impact on trade.”

Sir Brian has been appointed Principal Scientific Advisor to ZyGEM. He says one of his main roles for the company is to help introduce it to the biotech community in Europe.

ZyGEM is also planning to open an office in Europe, home to many of the world’s major biotech and genetics companies, some of them potential customers for ZyGEM’s reagent products.


Sir Brian Heap, CBE ScD FRS
Sir Brian Heap is Honorary Fellow, St Edmunds College, Cambridge, Special Professor in Animal Physiology at the University of Nottingham and Chairman of the new Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park. He was formerly UK representative on the NATO Science Committee, NATO Headquarters, Brussels.

Sir Brian is currently working on sustainable production and consumption issues with the British Government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, looking at ways in which science can decouple economic growth and environmental impact.

He is also chairing a group of European academies that provides advice to European institutions in Brussels on science and technology advances. Currently, the group is working on the future of energy in Europe This includes studies on managing energy use and demand, including long term research projects on the generating power using nuclear fusion. This pursues a theory that it will be possible to generate power without carbon dioxide emissions and with no radioactive waste, and other measures which would result more efficient energy use.

“It’s still a long way off, but at last we have a serious effort, based in Germany and supported by more than 14 nations.”

Sir Brian was Vice-President and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, Senior Visiting Scientist in the School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, Director of the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research (Cambridge and Edinburgh) and Director of Science, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Swindon. Professor Heap holds doctorates from Cambridge, Nottingham and York, has published extensively in endocrine physiology and in biotechnology


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