Aided by Catapult Bio, startup debuts forensic technology discovered at TGen

October 20, 2009

By hammersmith

Using technology licensed from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), and expertise and resources provided by the Phoenix-based nonprofit Catapult Bio, a Virginia startup firm has unveiled new genomic-analysis techniques to enhance dramatically the capabilities of forensic investigators.

Casework Genetics is addressing a challenge that often stymies criminal investigations involving DNA evidence: how to make sense of samples containing genetic material from multiple individuals, and then, how to make investigators’ conclusions stand up in court. The company asserts that its new approach will enable analysts to confidently pick out a single person from a sample containing the DNA of as many as 100 individuals.

“With our technology, you can say this person is in the mixture and this person isn’t,” said Kevin McElfresh, president and CEO of Casework Genetics, in the Arizona Republic. “We’ve already had a large amount of interest in this technology, especially for a startup.”

The methods that Casework uses are based on discoveries by researchers at TGen and the University of California at Los Angeles. Casework licensed the technology from TGen and UCLA, then paired it with the firm’s own patented tools to create a marketable service. Dr. McElfresh presented the new technology platform Oct. 13 at the 20th International Symposium on Human Identification in Las Vegas, Nev.

“The current technology being used, which is now 15 years old, often fails to yield a conclusive result on mixed samples,” Dr. McElfresh said. “Fortunately, our technology solves this problem.”

“It is by far, more exacting than the short tandem repeat technology, which has represented state-of-the-art forensic technology for most of the past decade,” Dr. McElfresh added.

Last year, TGen and UCLA researchers announced that they had found a way to use high-density Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) genotyping microarrays to pick out an individual’s genetic signature from a mixed sample, even if that individual represented less than 0.1 percent of the total mixture.

“Our results show a remarkable ability to identify trace amounts of an individual’s DNA within highly complex mixtures,” the researchers wrote in an article in the journal PLoS Genetics. “These results further suggest novel forensic applications where the existence of DNA from numerous other individuals currently hampers the ability to identify the presence of any single individual.”

Casework was able to accelerate the commercialization of the technology thanks to a roughly $500,000 grant from Catapult Bio—the first grant that Catapult has awarded since it was founded in January to drive economic development in Arizona through the commercialization of late-stage bioscience research.

“Casework Genetics represents the perfect case study for what Catapult Bio has been created to accomplish,” said MaryAnn Guerra, Catapult Bio’s CEO and co-founder. “With TGen as a partner, we facilitated the creation of Casework Genetics in fewer than six months and are thrilled to see what has been accomplished scientifically in such a short amount of time.”

The immediate payoff for Arizona from Catapult’s facilitation of Casework’s establishment is the revenue that TGen received from the licensing deal. The future payoff is less certain, but could be much greater, depending on how quickly Casework flourishes.

With the grant it made, Catapult secured equity in the company and the right to help develop the firm’s business plan for national growth. If Casework is sold or becomes a public company, Catapult will cash out its equity and be able to use that revenue to assist other companies emerging from Arizona technologies.

While Catapult would like to keep in Arizona the firms it helps to create, the economic-development strategy it has adopted, which it refers to as venture philanthropy, means that the guidance it provides to the firms it assists will ultimately focus on how to maximize those firms’ viability.

With respect to Casework, that meant locating the company in Woodbridge, Va., a site offering economic incentives–a $25,000 grant from Princ William County’s Economic Development Opportunity Fund–and a site that gives Casework in-county proximity to state and local police forensics laboratories, and more importantly, major forensic facilities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Department of Defense.

Indeed, Dr. McElfresh said in the Republic that Casework has already signed a contract with DOD. As the firm signs additional deals, he anticipates growth over the next three years from the current five employees to 25, with an average salary of $89,000.

And as a function of the funding it has received from Catapult, as it expands the company will prioritize growth in Arizona.

For more information:

TGen technology will help fight crime,” Arizona Republic, 10/13/2009

TGen technology uses genetics to fight crime,” Phoenix Business Journal, 10/13/2009

Forensics Firm Builds on Genomic Discovery to Advance DNA-based Identification,” TGen news release, 10/13/2009

Casework to open headquarters in Prince William County,” Washington Business Journal, 08/05/2009