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Small things bring big rewards for Genetic Testing Lab and NMSU

In 2005, the Genetic Testing Laboratories (GTL) Inc. partnered with New Mexico State University to venture into the multi-million-dollar world of genetic testing. After more than a year in the market, both the partnership and endeavor proved to be a success.



With several successes under its belt, the Genetic Testing Laboratories Inc. is well on its way to becoming a leader in the industry. (Courtesy photo)


"We have more than surpassed our expectations," said Jack Ellis, one of two private owners of GTL. Ellis and partner Bill White are from El Paso and own multiple businesses throughout the region.

"The returns to the community at large - students, faculty and residents - have been immediate and significant," said Kevin Boberg, director of NMSU's Arrowhead Center Inc. "Students are getting the opportunity to enhance their income, advance their professional development and their academic careers. The technology focus of the company, its salary and benefits package make GTL a great addition to our business community."

With several successes under its belt, GTL is well on its way to becoming a leader in the industry. Over the past year, the lab has developed a new over-the-counter DNA testing kit called HomeDNA, contracted with another laboratory to market a similar product for DNA-based ancestry analysis, identified opportunities to tap the forensic market and increased its client base.

GTL was spun out of the university to become a for-profit DNA-based human identity lab located on campus. Current services include paternity and maternity testing; immigration testing; and various forms of relationship testing. Home test kits are also available online and the lab routinely provides binding tests for use in courts within the United States.

New on the market

Soon customers will be able to walk into a pharmacy or grocery store and purchase a GTL DNA testing kit.

"This is the first kit of this nature on the market," Ellis said.

Although the use of the Internet to purchase items has greatly increased through the years, Pete Lammers, an NMSU faculty member and expert in DNA analysis, said "there's still a portion of the population that does not have access to the Web or does not want to use it to buy these types of items. The test kit package contains cheek swabs for DNA collection and forms to fill out. Customers mail it in and receive results the same way as if they were to purchase the item online."

The over-the-counter kit is ready for the commercial market. GTL is currently developing a distribution network for retail outlets and medical offices. Individuals or companies interested in the product may contact GTL at 866-833-6895 or e-mail info@gtldna.com.

Spinoffs

Now that GTL has achieved success with parentage and relationship DNA testing, the future of the lab is set in other markets, for example forensic DNA testing. The lab is applying for Forensic Quality System (FQS) certification and is already providing consulting services for local law enforcement.

"We are right on the cusp of going out for state contracts in New Mexico, other states and even other countries," said Lammers, who testified before the New Mexico Senate Judiciary committee in relation to "Katie's Law," which was passed and signed by Gov. Bill Richardson this spring. The bill is similar to laws in seven other states that require forensic DNA analysis and data collection from individuals arrested for certain violent crimes.

Law enforcement agencies need rapid, high-quality and affordable forensic DNA analysis, and GTL would like to fill this need, Lammers said.

Working in the forensic market will also allow NMSU students who are pursuing a minor in forensics to receive hands-on experience, said Stephen Long, general manager of GTL. Another possible move would be toward human clinical DNA testing.

"Currently, physicians are able to make decisions between treatment options, for the most part, without needing to access information about an individual's genetic predisposition to disease or toxicological response profile, but there are a few specialties where DNA-based information can make a difference," he said.

One of those specialties is in the field of oncology. Lammers said research has shown that there are associations between cancer genome types and treatment outcomes.

"Because cancers can change their genetic makeup there is a benefit to applying DNA-based testing," he said. "By determining the DNA profile of a tumor, a doctor would be able to surmise whether or not a particular protocol would be efficacious or not."

The process, Lammers said, would save a patient the pain and suffering of treatment if it is unlikely to work or alternatively give a patient encouragement and confidence to start with an arduous course of treatment.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," Lammers said. "We believe clinical testing, in the long run, will be larger than the parentage or forensic markets. As we grow, we will be looking for opportunities to seek new certifications and develop new testing procedures."

Other possibilities include agricultural DNA testing, and DNA tests for parentage and performance characteristics in cattle breeding.

Growing at a fast pace

To date, GTL has more than doubled its case load to 1,200 samplings per month and has increased its staff to 12, which includes three forensic analysts who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Although the lab evolved from a nonprofit to a for-profit business, its connection to the university hasn't wavered.

The lab employs three NMSU faculty and staff members and offers real-world experience to NMSU students. Jeongwon Jun, of the interdisciplinary Molecular Biology Program, provides quality control expertise while Lammers, of the chemistry and biochemistry department, offers knowledge in DNA analysis and serves as the laboratory director. John Spalding of NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory supplies computer, software and programming skills. Lammers, Long and Spalding equally share 17 percent in GTL royalties and other proceeds.

"The knowledge, the benefits, the credibility that you gain for being associated with the university is invaluable," Ellis said.

As the lab continues to grow in all aspects of the industry, space grows tighter. NMSU's Genesis Center, where GTL is housed, is at full capacity.

"We are seeking more space," said Ellis. "We want to stay here and our hopes are that somewhere down the line we will be able to build our own lab that will house different services."

Ellis said he also would like to see a teaching and research center, a joint venture with the university that will serve as a training facility for faculty, staff and students.

For more information on GTL, visit www.gtldna.com.