Journeyman Jones: Learning about my swab story

THERE S a terrific pub in Cambridge I want to tell you about. Of course, it s not a patch on any of Ely s fine hostelries, but it s still very good nonetheless. It s called The Eagle. It s a great place to drink, except that at about 11.10pm when the bar

THERE'S a terrific pub in Cambridge I want to tell you about.

Of course, it's not a patch on any of Ely's fine hostelries, but it's still very good nonetheless.

It's called The Eagle. It's a great place to drink, except that at about 11.10pm when the bar staff take on a certain android quality and force you to leave their premises with utmost haste.

Anyway, all this is rather by-the-by. The Eagle is the place where Mr Crick and Mr Watson used to meet to discuss their latest theory, the rather fanciful DNA concept.

Well, as we know now, DNA has become one of the most important discoveries in modern science, and we must surely be grateful to Crick and Watson, whilst acknowledging the role The Eagle played in all this. After all, most scientific theories of note were developed alongside the consumption of pork scratchings and the drinking of warm beer with bits in it.

DNA evidence can be used for all sorts of things - tracing ancestry, solving criminal cases, or determining maternity and paternity.

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It is the latter of these three for which it is perhaps most well-known, and it is that which is offered by the health team, based at the Crown Health Centre in that cradle of scientific knowledge, Littleport.

Administering DNA tests is a new thing for the health team, in fact, they've just launched the service this week. I should point out that maternity/paternity tests are the only service they offer with their DNA tests, so if you've got any ideas about discovering whether Horatio Nelson was your great-great-great grandfather's squash partner, you're better served to look elsewhere.

Clinical director Brian Beber is one of a team of nine based there. His team was approached by Liverpool-based Sequence Laboratories a year ago to see if they would conduct DNA tests.

The test results are 99.9999 per cent accurate, which basically means there's a one in a million chance of it being wrong.

All data is held in the strictest confidence, and the health team also offers help and counselling for those involved in paternity/maternity issues.

The test starts with a mouth swab (I've still got mine in my pocket, as there were no paternity issues I needed to be aware of) which is then sent off for analysis.

The DNA is extracted from the swab - believe me, this is a long and scientific process - and the DNA is amplified and treated using fluorescent probes. These probes are detected by high-tech lasers using state of the art equipment. This produces a pattern that is unique to every individual. A child's pattern will 'match up' to those patterns generated by their true biological parents.

It's fascinating stuff, even if it is lost on the layman up to a point. From the initial swab to the test result, the whole process takes about a week, and it is down to the people involved as to how they want to receive the results.

DNA is coming more and more into the public arena. "Everyone is aware of it to a certain extent," says Brian. "It's had too high a profile for too long.

"However, to give the media its due, I think they have handled the issue sensibly and many of the articles which have appeared are clear."

Not to mention this column, which I know is enjoyed (or should that be tolerated?) by thousands of you every week.

Yet, there is a problem with DNA testing. Up until now, it has been a remote, isolated affair. You received your test result, but where did you go after that?

Fortunately, the health team goes beyond the test. "We need to work with people, rather than science," says Brian.

"The thing we ask ourselves is: 'can we help people'? A study was done some years ago, which revealed that 70 per cent of people who visit their GP have some sort of psychological problem. That is what we can help them with."

This holistic approach is paying off. More than one patient tells me how they've made great strides under the care of the health team, and one gets the impression that they will handle any DNA issues with a similar degree of sensitivity.

n For more information on getting a DNA test, ring the Crown Treatment Centre on 08707 898909 or visit

The test costs £199, with a pre-test consultation and optional results session.