Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007

Akonni scores $450,000 for DNA, forensic work

Incubator company lands Justice Department grant

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Rebecca McClay⁄The Gazette
Lexi Bryant and Cynthia Zimmerman, applied technology scientistsat Akonni Biosystems in Frederick, set up a diagnostic experiment.
Akonni Biosystems Inc., a Frederick incubator company ready to fly the coop, has snagged a $450,000 grant from the federal government to help forensic investigators with faster and cheaper DNA test results.

With money from the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice issued Sept. 1, Akonni has started to design, build and test a project for tests on the Y chromosome and other forensic methods to help criminal investigators solve sex and other crimes.

Akonni scientists, now at the Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc. incubator at Hood College, are advancing the company’s diagnostic technology called ‘‘microarray” to help doctors diagnose diseases more cheaply, quickly and thoroughly.

Jennifer Reynolds, Akonni vice president, said the company’s microarray, which is a tiny tray the size of a quarter that houses gel sample bubbles, can offer hundreds of diagnoses at once. The method was intended to help physicians, but could greatly benefit criminal investigators, too, she said.

‘‘We’re excited about being able to apply our skills to the forensic arena,” Reynolds said. ‘‘We think this will be a great tool for doing greater analyses of crime scene samples. .... Our technology is very well-suited for the forensic community. We really wanted to see it used in that field.”

For the one-year project, Akonni will try to modify its microarray for research on Y chromosomes, which are found only in males. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, Massachusetts State Police and Vermont State Police are partnering with Akonni and will likely be among the first users if the venture proves successful, Reynolds said.

Tweaking the technology for Y chromosome research would primarily aid investigations on sexual assaults, Reynolds said, as the tests would ignore genetic information from a female victim. In later years, Akonni could create other diagnostic tests for investigators — such as tests on blood — that could benefit a wider array of crime research. The seemingly endless possibilities for its use caught the attention of Congress.

‘‘This is an important grant because Akonni Biosystems’ advances will help improve DNA analyses of samples from crime scenes,” Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown said in a statement. ‘‘DNA analysis is vitally important to improve law enforcement and our criminal justice system.”

Akonni Biosystems was founded in 2001 by Charles Daitch and was accepted into the Frederick incubator in 2003. It offers an array of diagnostic and DNA analyses such as the gel-drop microarrays, which the company also manufactures. Akonni aims to develop, manufacture and sell solutions for both infectious and other human diseases and hopes to secure FDA approval for that in the next few years.

Akonni, which receives funding from private investors and various grants, still draws minimal profits but has had a dramatic increase in revenues, Reynolds said.

The company has grown from three employees in 2003 to 24 scientists today and plans on adding more employees after moving into larger facilities later this month.

‘‘Bursting at the seams” in the incubator labs at Hood College, Akonni will move into McCutcheon Apple Products Inc. warehouse, an 11,000-square-foot building on South Wisner Street in Frederick, when renovations on lab and manufacturing spaces are complete, Reynolds said.

‘‘FITCI’s been a place we could grow — it’s been everything we need — but we’re looking forward to graduating the incubator,” Reynolds said. ‘‘We want to continue to bring revenue to the city and the county and the state of Maryland.”

Bartlett, along with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore, also recently shored up $750,000 for the Fort Detrick Technology Transfer Initiative in Frederick.

The grant, announced Monday, will allot $50,000 each to 15 small businesses that are developing technologies. It will be funded by the Army through the Maryland Technology Development Corp. and the Frederick County Office of Economic Development.

The fort’s technology initiative ‘‘is a proven success, as since its inception it has helped to commercialize a number of valuable technologies, right here in Maryland,” said Renée Winsky, president and executive director of Tedco.