UK scientists say find cheap, fast gene test method

LONDON (Reuters) - British scientists say they have developed a way of pinpointing variations in a person’s genetic code using a chemical test on saliva, meaning quick, cheap DNA tests for risks of certain diseases may be around the corner.

Researchers at Edinburgh University said their technique, based on chemical analysis, can deliver reliable results without the need for expensive enzymes used in conventional DNA testing.

Juan Diaz-Mochon of the university’s School of Chemistry, who led the research, said the chemical method was able to detect genes linked to cystic fibrosis in laboratory experiments using synthetic DNA.

With funding from commercial partners and the Scottish Enterprise fund, he said his team planned to market a cystic fibrosis test very soon and then run further research to see if the same method could be used to decode entire human genomes.

“We’re hoping to bring the first test for cystic fibrosis to the market within five months,” he told Reuters. “With the scientific data we already have, we believe we can develop this test further and in different ways.”

Tests which identify tiny variations or omissions in DNA code are increasingly being developed and marketed as ways of determining whether or not a person is healthy, susceptible to disease, or has a disease or serious risks of developing one.

Cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening inherited disease in which internal organs such as the lungs and digestive system become clogged with thick sticky mucus, is one of a small number of diseases caused by a single, identifiable faulty gene.

Companies around the world are racing to develop ever faster and cheaper gene sequencing techniques to offer scientists and drug developers swifter routes mapping whole genomes.

U.S. firm Illumina launched its latest genome sequencing tool, HiSeq 2000, in January and challenges rivals at Life Technologies, Roche, Affymetrix, Agilent Technologies and Helicos BioSciences.

Experts say the “holy grail” for such firms is to be able to decode a person’s entire genetic sequence for $1,000.

Diaz-Mochon said the his chemical method would offer a “speedy, cost-efficient alternative” to existing DNA analysis.

“The market for DNA testing is quickly expanding as it becomes more affordable. Our method could help reach the goal of complete genome analysis in a few hours for less than $1,000,” he said in a commentary about the study, which was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie and funded by Scottish Enterprise.

Mark Bradley, who also worked on the study, said the team planned to extend their collaborations with researchers and companies working in DNA “and establish our first commercial operations within the next six months.”

Editing by David Cowell