Lab's tests give answers to genetic questions DNA: Baltimore RH Typing Laboratory is marketing paternity testing to the public with an eye-catching billboard.

November 25, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

From a billboard in downtown Baltimore, the Mona Lisa smiles that enigmatic, but perhaps not-so-knowing smile. This version appears pregnant -- and wondering one thing. "Who's The Daddy?"

It's a question in the minds of many with murky biological relationships, say heads of the Baltimore RH Typing Laboratory, which has begun marketing paternity tests to the public. With the help of the eye-catching billboard, the lab hopes to carve out a niche in a competitive market by supplying the answers, especially outside the courtroom.

"It used to be that any private testing was a referral from a physician or an attorney," said Caroline Shepherd, acting general manager of the lab on West Franklin Street. Recently though, consumers have become more aware of getting tests on their own. "It seems to have piqued the desire on the part of many to answer some questions that were gnawing at the back of their brain."

Genetic fingerprinting is nothing new. For a decade, DNA analysis has been used as evidence in paternity and criminal cases, capturing worldwide attention in the O. J. Simpson case and making headlines when Bill Cosby and Dudley Moore sought to disprove paternity.

But it's not only the rich or famous who need answers. In an age of soaring divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births, of heated child custody battles and questions over inheritance, more and more mothers, fathers and children just want to know for sure.

Last year alone, 173,000 paternity tests were done by labs accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks, more than double the 77,000 in 1988, said Eric R. Slayton, association spokesman. The group accredits 51 labs nationwide, including two in Maryland, the Baltimore RH lab and Cellmark Diagnostics Inc., a DNA forensics firm in Gaithersburg.

Terry D. Houtz, the Baltimore lab's manager of genetic testing, points to a variety of reasons people get tested. Tests can identify siblings separated by adoption, help adopted children find birth parents, offer proof of kinship in immigration cases. Labs can even test posthumously, analyzing hair or bone fragments.

In one high-profile local case, behind-the-scenes work by Baltimore RH helped reunite a kidnapped infant with his parents.

Parents, child reunited

Avery James Norris was just 2 days old when a woman dressed as a nurse took him from his mother's room at Sinai Hospital. Nearly two months later, in November 1989, police found a baby believed to be the Norris child with a woman in Woodmoor, who said she gave birth at home. DNA testing of the baby, of parents Linda and Douglas Norris and of alleged abductor Karleane Wilkinson ruled out Wilkinson as the mother and linked the child genetically to the Norris couple. Wilkinson was later convicted of kidnapping.

Often, it's the father who wants to know. In another case, Houtz said, a man involved with a married woman found through a paternity test that one of her children was his own. He agreed to pay child support and share custody of the child -- who remained with the mother and her husband. Another woman feared a pregnancy had resulted from a rape, and a paternity test showed the child to be her husband's.

Then there was the girlfriend and boyfriend who suspected they might be half-siblings. A test allayed their fears.

Paternity testing has come a long way since 1945, when a group of obstetricians and gynecologists founded the Baltimore lab as a private, nonprofit corporation, which it remains.

In the early days, the lab tested for paternity by analyzing red blood cell types, a method now considered primitive. Those tests could exclude an alleged father with 60 percent accuracy.

Today, an analysis of the unique genetic coding of cells can exclude someone believed to be the father with 99.97 percent certainty.

For $480 and a bit of blood -- or a few cells scraped from the inside of the cheek -- parents and a child can be tested by Baltimore RH. With only one parent cooperating, the cost stays the same but the lab needs additional tests.

If the alleged father has died, the lab can reconstruct family genes, testing a paternal grandparent or sibling of the father.

With neither parent available, reconstruction can prove a genetic link with 95 percent accuracy, said Frank A. Chiafari, the lab's molecular biologist.

Genetic testing now accounts for 60 percent of the lab's $4 million annual business, with roughly 24,000 tests conducted last year. That includes contract work analyzing criminal-case evidence.

Therapeutic apheresis, a method of separating blood components for hospitals to treat patients with rare diseases, accounts for the rest, Shepherd said.

Diversifying

As the 46-employee lab strives to keep its foothold in a rapidly consolidating field, it has attempted to diversify. Lab directors came to the realization that people don't usually know of the availability of private paternity testing, Houtz said.

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