Testing the Truth

How does a Rice grad go global with DNA analyses? It's all in the marketing.

We don't know for sure when our species developed language, but we can be sure that from that moment on, paternity was his word against hers. This uncertain he-said she-said state of affairs continued until the era of Ozzie & Harriet, when simple blood-type paternity testing was accepted. By the time of The Brady Bunch, blood-based paternity testing was refined to the point where 95 percent of men could be excluded as the father.

When the bizarre father figure Duckman debuted on the USA Network in 1994, "parenting" issues included a Pergonal- and Follistim-fueled spike in multiple births, talk of grandparents seeking legal custody of frozen eggs, and other sticky ethical issues, but getting to the genetic truth was much easier.

Caroline Caskey helped make it that way. She wasn't the first to offer DNA analyses when her fledgling Identigene firm received its first paternity test case in August 1994. But Caskey was the first to market that testing to the general public -- and that has made all the difference. Instead of a blood sample, her company collected cells with a buccal swab, between the cheek and gum. One pass with a swab might pick up a million cells, all riddled with DNA. Identigene promoted home collection tests at half the price of many blood-based tests. They settled questions and let the client decide how to deal with the answers.

Caskey's lab can look for inherited diseases or the damning sperm of marital infidelity.
Deron Neblett
Caskey's lab can look for inherited diseases or the damning sperm of marital infidelity.

"Who's the Father? 1-800-DNA-TYPE" billboards appeared in major cities. Even New York cabs carried the notorious ad, and Caskey began appearing on TV shows. "Some," she grins, "more proudly than others." Caskey, a 1992 graduate of Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management and perhaps the only alum ever featured on Jenny Jones, has spread the word on tabloid TV and with more respectable media such as CNN, NPR and Time.

Paternity and fidelity concerns are the meat of bad TV, yet such questions aren't as squalid and far removed as they might seem at first. Researchers in genetic studies and tissue typing for organ donations find that plenty of folks aren't who they think they are. Different studies have found that from 5 percent to 20 percent of the population is wrong about their paternity. These studies aren't from contested paternity cases. The figures come from families who agree to genetic testing because they're concerned about muscular dystrophy, polycystic kidney disease or other proved or suspected inherited conditions; from people who didn't understand what research would uncover, or who understood but decided the health of future generations was more important than their reputation. In other words, they look more like you than like the half-wit trashy people of Maury Povich.

Health concerns, child support, restoring lost dauphins to their rightful position, just wanting to know for sure. Caskey understands the myriad reasons for calling Identigene and that the results of her DNA tests have inestimable implications, but she says her business is simply selling the truth.

"Once people have established the facts, they can move forward," she says. In addition to paternity testing, Identigene will find the facts on siblingship, twin testing (twins who look identical but may not be) and marital infidelity. The truth is out there, but it's impossible to predict how people will react to genetic truth. Caskey sticks with the facts because she grew up knowing the human genome could be mapped, but that the human heart may never be understood.

Caroline's father, Dr. Thomas Caskey, was the founder and longtime chair of the Human Genetics Department at Baylor and served as president of HUGO, the international organization formed to map the human genome. He most recently headed genetics research at Merck. Her mother, Peggy Pearce Caskey, founded Laboratories for Genetic Services Inc. It provides genetic lab services for doctors and hospitals nationwide and is right across the hall from Identigene's headquarters.

Caroline Caskey wasn't a high school science geek. Her undergraduate degree is in French (she attended her dad's alma mater, Duke), and she remembers being sort of an oddball among the finance-oriented students in her entrepreneur studies at Rice.

If she didn't exactly fit in as a grad student, the DNA findings of her company don't always match the outcome anticipated by clients, either. Caskey says none of the 25,000 analyses from her lab have ever been proved to be inaccurate. However, she recalls at least five cases where clients have, through desperation or ignorance, tried to alter reports. The forgeries were as obvious as absentee excuse notes signed "Epstein's mother," and they left Caskey shocked. The ever-optimistic, sunny blond remains disturbed, because altering those private test results was not a prosecutable offense.

One testee's attempt to avoid the truth was entirely a police matter. A child whose paternity was to be tested was kidnapped to prevent a sample from being taken. The biological father had merely stashed the child with a baby-sitter. The sitter saw TV coverage of the tot's disappearance and called the cops, who collected the unharmed child.

Along with the view of private lives afforded by paternity and other family relationships, Identigene also offers a sperm detection and marital infidelity test. Those services, Caskey concedes with a wry grin, are "not our most savory." As far as she knows, no parents have sent in their teenager's clothes to check up on them. She and her staff work in an environment where the daily mail includes panties sent by obsessed clients. This is serious business, answering what are often dark questions, in a joyless office tower midway between the Texas Medical Center and the Dome. However, in Caskey's 12th-floor suite, the spirit and enthusiasm resemble cheerleading camp, replete with handmade foam plastic projects, glitter paint and Day-Glo colors.

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