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Business Profile: Biotech lab paves the way for a thriving industry

DNA testing isn’t just for prime time crime shows and celebrity gossip. The scientific practice has become big business in the past decade, and a Columbia company has been at its forefront.

Since 1996, Paternity Testing Corporation (PTC) has been the only accredited DNA analysis firm in the country that guarantees no less than 99.99 percent accuracy. The accuracy rate can make or break a criminal case, say genetic scientists Kim Gorman and Michelle Beckwith, the mother and daughter who own PTC in Columbia. PTC uses technology that is 100 times more precise than the standard minimum requirements of other accredited labs.

“This is one of the reasons that many crime labs don’t do their own DNA testing,” says Gorman. In addition to performing paternity tests, PTC processes DNA evidence for forensic purposes. A reliability rate of 99.99 percent can change a standard test result from one in 100 to one in 10,000.

“There are only about 40 accredited laboratories in the United States,” says Beckwith. Most courts, she says, accept testing only through accredited labs listed with the American Association of Blood Banks Web site.

Genetic testing has become a huge industry since Gorman and Beckwith opened for business. Phenomenal increases have occurred in DNA profiling for convicted-offender databanks, and federal funding for profiling increased dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. Louisiana was the first state that profiled all of its arrestees, and now its database is huge. Gorman says the use of DNA profiling in law enforcement “just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Missouri currently has a bill pending that will broaden who they collect DNA from to include anyone who is arrested.”

The company has an exclusive DNA testing contract with the State of Missouri, is a vendor for the Missouri Child Support Division and performs government-requested tests for state agencies in Louisiana, Iowa, Colorado and Tennessee as well as organizations in Miami. Although PTC’s work comes from all over the world and its services are listed in more than 100 phone books, Gorman says the lab does a significant amount of testing in Missouri.

“We also do all kinds of things for the state of Missouri free of charge,” says Gorman. “If Boone County has a rape case, they bring the evidence to us, and we process the DNA evidence.” Gorman’s DNA profiling work helped to identify the infamous Southside rapist.

Much of PTC’s day-to-day work involves paternity testing. Individual clients pay PTC $495 to test a mother, a child and one alleged father, with PTC making arrangements for specimen collection at a local hospital.
PTC volunteers with the Columbia Police Department for its child ID program. What originally started as a project to create thumbprint IDs for kids during the Twilight Festival in Columbia has become a twice-yearly event that includes photos and DNA swab collection.

PTC also hosts a forensic conference for criminalists and crime labs every year.

Both Gorman and Beckwith have extensive experience in biotechnology and worked on the International Human Genome Project.

Gorman earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis before going to work for the St. Louis Police Department as a criminalist. “I really enjoyed the work,” Gorman says about her former job with the police department. “This is the same type of work at PTC, but it doesn’t have all of the bad things that you find in forensic work; the majority is all swabs.”

Beckwith earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She says that the main reason PTC is located in Columbia is that she liked living here, and she and her family decided it was a good place to settle. Beckwith’s husband, John, works for PTC as treasurer and business manager and is one of four key people overseeing daily operations.

The fourth, Gorman’s husband, Joe, helped to establish the company and plays an integral role in the business. A former St. Louis attorney, he provides legal expertise for PTC, in addition to handling administrative duties.

Currently, PTC employs 35 people and boasts a low turnover rate.
“Most of our laboratory employees are graduates of the university,” Gorman says. “We don’t switch employees very often. We have an incredible staff, and the four of us are usually around, so employees get a lot of support.”

Beckwith adds: “One of the most important things about Columbia is that we have such a wealth of talent here. I think for the most part that a lot of the people that come to PTC want to stay. They enjoy helping people.”

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