NEC is working on a suitcase-sized DNA analyzer

The device will prepare DNA samples in the field for matching with DNA databases

NEC is working on a suitcase-sized DNA analyzer, which it says will be able to process samples at the scene of a crime or disaster in as little as 25 minutes.

The company said it aims to launch the device globally in 2014, and sell it for around 10 million yen, or US$120,000. It will output samples that can be quickly matched via the growing number of DNA databases worldwide.

"At first we will target investigative organizations, like police," said spokeswoman Marita Takahashi. "We will also push its use on victims of natural disasters, to quickly match samples from siblings and parents."

NEC hopes to use research and software from its mature fingerprint and facial matching technology, which have been deployed in everyday devices such as smartphones and ATMs.

The company said that the need for cheaper and faster DNA testing became clear in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devasted much of Japan's northeast coastline last year, when authorities performed nearly 20,000 samples.

NEC pointed to growing databases such as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) in the U.S. and a Japanese database of DNA samples.

The company said it is aiming to make the device usable for those with minimal training, requiring only a cotton swab or small blood sample. NEC aims to make a device that weighs around 35 kilograms, measuring 850 millimeters by 552mm by 240mm, about the size of a large suitcase. The unit will run on a 12V power source.

NEC said it will be able to complete three-stage analysis process using a "lab on a chip" process, a term for for technology that recreates lab processes on chip-sized components. The basic steps for analysis include extracting DNA from samples, amplifying the DNA for analysis, and then separating out the different DNA strands.

The current version of the analyzer takes about an hour for all three tasks, and NEC said it aims to lower that to 25 minutes.

NEC it is carrying out the development of the analyzer together with partners including Promega, a U.S. biotechnology firm, and is testing it with a police science research institute in Japan.

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Jay Alabaster

IDG News Service
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