BY WARREN COHEN
January 27, 1997
Just before Christmas, Michael Martin received the kind of phone call some men have nightmares about. A former girlfriend, with whom he had split up in 1992, informed Martin that he was the father of her 4-year-old boy. Like others in his predicament, he couldn't help but wonder, was the child really his?
Then he recalled an unusual billboard he had seen on Houston's Interstate 10: "Who's the Father? 1-800-DNA-TYPE." Martin called and set up an appointment at a company called Identigene. A week later, the DNA test confirmed that he was indeed a not-so-new papa.
The breakdown of the two-parent household--nearly 1 in 3 babies today are born to single moms--has been a source of hand wringing among national leaders. But the trend has been a bonanza for Identigene and other genetic labs that specialize in identifying paternity through DNA (the genetic sequence passed down from parents to children). There are now roughly 200,000 DNA paternity tests each year, and the number of labs accredited to perform this work has reached 53, up from 20 in 1988.
Deadbeat dads. Most DNA labs receive their work by bidding for bulk contracts of child-support cases from states. A law passed in 1988 requires single moms on welfare to try to establish paternity (attention, deadbeat dads). Taxpayers foot the bill for these court-ordered DNA tests, but once a father is established, the cost is reimbursed by Dad. For the labs, competition for public caseloads has become intense.
Houston-based Identigene ignores the public sector and focuses on middle-class customers. Typical clients include nonwelfare moms involved in court custody cases, fathers fighting to establish paternal relationships with their children, and black-haired dads who wonder why their kids sport carrot tops. Identigene also has examined the DNA of exhumed bodies to resolve disputes over inheritances. The company charges a premium of $600 per test, compared with $150 to $300 for public contracts (the privately held firm won't release financial data, but executives say the lab became profitable this past year).
At first, Identigene tried, with little success, to lure customers with TV and newspaper ads. But it has had better luck with attention-grabbing billboards in Houston and other cities. Nearly 100 would-be customers a day call the 800 number, and test volume is growing 25 percent a quarter. "In developing a market that didn't exist before, we've tried to plant a seed of doubt in people's minds," says Identigene's 29-year-old president, Caroline Caskey. "Most people are too shy to ask anyone about something so extremely personal, but given a number, a lot of people will go ahead and call."
Identigene's tests are easier than having your teeth cleaned. Typical DNA tests extract blood from family members. But when Martin, his former girlfriend, and son visited an Identigene lab, technicians simply used a cotton swab to collect cheek cells from inside their mouths. Results came back in a week, compared with four to six weeks for most labs. (DNA tests establish fatherhood with 99.9 percent accuracy.)
There is one potential roadblock to Identigene's future growth. A 1993 government program that will try to get dads to admit paternity in hospitals at the time of birth could reduce the amount of testing needed over the long run. On the other hand, numerous medical studies suggest that up to 10 percent of all men who think they are the fathers of their children really aren't. If that estimate becomes common knowledge, there may one day be an Identigene in every shopping mall.
Copyright 1997, U.S. News & World Report. All rights reserved.