Lawrence among first to retrieve DNA

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 31, 2002

In the not too distant future, when grandpa dies, in addition to whether you’d prefer the polished walnut coffin or a little something in mahogany, you’re likely to be asked whether you’d care to preserve a slice of his DNA as well.

Actually, the future is here.

Lawrence Brown-Service Funeral Home is the first funeral home in Selma – and among the first in the United States – to enter the brave new world of DNA retrieval and storage.

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Lawrence acts as a provider for DNA Connections, a DNA retrieval and storage company with offices in Tuscaloosa.

DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid, which is found in most body cells and is responsible for making up the gene markers that determine heredity. Just as no two persons have the same fingerprints, so no two persons have the same DNA.

But DNA is much more than a unique identifier. It is the genetic map of who we are as individuals. A person’s DNA, for example, can reveal much about his or her genetic predisposition to many illnesses.

“Sometimes,” said Danny White, vice president of DNA Connections, “if a disease is diagnosed early enough, you can alter your lifestyle to help deter the effects of that disease. That’s particularly true with, say, diabetes.”

White cited the recent case of a 45-year-old New Jersey man who “dropped dead at the family supper table” from a heart attack. After a little checking, the bereaved wife discovered that her husband’s father also died early from the same cause and that her two sons were at risk of suffering the same fate.

She opted to have inline defibrillators implanted in both her sons as a preventative measure at a cost of around $12,000.

“If you ask her today, she’ll smile and tell you that sure, it was a lot of money, but it’s a cheap price to pay for having two sons that are still alive,” White said. “Is this service for everybody? Probably not. But it’s a good tool to have available.”

White said his firm has been offering a DNA retrieval and storage service for about three years. While the public at large may have been slow to appreciate the advantages offered by such a service up till now, momentum is building – especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

White noted that there are still 90,000 unidentified body parts from the attack on the World Trade Towers. The process of identification would be greatly simplified had DNA samples been available.

According to Lawrence owner John McCune, there are three primary means of acquiring a DNA sample from the deceased. The most common is simply to rub a sterile swab against the inside of the deceased’s cheek. The other methods are to take a blood sample or to take a small piece of flesh, about a one-quarter inch cube, from the leg or some area that doesn’t affect the appearance of the deceased.

“Taking a hair sample doesn’t work,” McCune explained, “because that only provides the DNA from the mother’s side of the family.”

Another reason many families opt to have a DNA sample taken is to ward off possible paternity suits involving the estate of the deceased.

“If somebody who’s worth 14 kazillion dollars dies, having a DNA sample available can prevent a total stranger showing up at the funeral and saying ‘that’s my daddy,'” McCune said. “Having a DNA sample on record can protect surviving family members from that sort of thing.”

Taking a DNA sample at the time of the funeral is also a safeguard against the trauma of having to order an exhumation to settle Social Security issues, probate disputes and paternity concerns.

“Of course,” McCune noted, “once someone has been cremated, then the DNA is lost forever.”

Based on the sample it takes, DNA Connections generates a genetic profile of its clients. It requires a physician trained in reading such profiles to make sense of the DNA code. But the company also stores the actual sample for 25 years, making it available for any future tests that might be developed.

“As rapidly as medical science is progressing, can you imagine what kind of tests will be available 25 years from today?” McCune pointed out.

McCune dismissed concerns that retrieving and storing DNA samples might one day be used to deny insurance to someone who is genetically predisposed to a disease.

“The family has all rights over any DNA sample,” he said. “It’s not public domain stuff. The family owns the DNA and the rights to that DNA.”

For now the idea of DNA retrieval and storage for the deceased is still new to most families who must deal with the multitude of decisions that must be made at such times. But that may be about to change.

Said McCune, “Twenty five years from now it’ll be something that people will look back and say ‘I can’t believe we didn’t do that before.’ You go back to the 1950s, before doctors regularly washed their hands between patients. We think it’ll be like that.”