Revealing hidden secrets of DNA testing

TEST Cells are taken from a patient using a mouth swab
TEST Cells are taken from a patient using a mouth swab
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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In a converted cottage off a busy main road is a place where hidden secrets are finally revealed.

They are the secrets of families, unravelled just as certainly as the strands of DNA that carry the answers.

PROOF A DNA result ready to be compared

PROOF A DNA result ready to be compared

Fathers who are unsure whether a child is really theirs go to this DNA testing clinic to find out the truth, whatever that may be.

And men who have been asked to provide for a child they didn’t know they had have also made use of the service.

Wills can be settled once and for all, and families are able to start their own genetic family tree – it’s all in a day’s work for the BioClinic in Gosport, run by Pam Gully.

As well as solving DNA-related riddles, Pam is also a fully-trained counsellor so can deal with the emotional fallout surrounding such an issue.

She incorporates BioClinic work with her business, Charterhouse Counselling, based on Brockhurst Road.

‘I’ve been a counsellor for about 15 years,’ says Pam.

‘About six years ago BioClinics approached me and asked me to include a DNA testing centre. I refused, but after a while they really just wore me down.

‘I haven’t regretted it at all. It is a valuable service because there is a counselling element to it.’

The test is simple. From the moment someone makes the decision that they want to put an end to their own speculation and worry, it can be as little as a week between them picking up the phone to Pam and receiving their results.

Television shows such as Jeremy Kyle and Trisha mean DNA testing can be thought of as something only certain types need to have.

But Pam says people from all walks of life come through her door looking for answers.

She explains: ‘About one time in 10 I get a phone call from a woman with a faltering voice in her 30s or 40s who’s just been told a girl has had a baby, and her son’s the father.

‘The boy is usually a lot less fussed about it than mum and sometimes the challenge can be to stop her interfering in the test. Nine times out of 10 the baby is the boy’s.

Pam adds: ‘Another very common one is a well to-do man in his 40s will phone saying a woman has been asking him for child support for her child from him. The woman will be living with someone else, and that man has no idea the child isn’t his own.

‘She will have to agree to a DNA test, and she has a dilemma because she has to talk to her husband.

‘Sometimes it’s a try-on, and when asked to do a DNA test she goes away.

‘But I have had some very, very distressed men in here hearing from their partner that the child is not theirs.

‘It can be heartwarming though, because sometimes the man will ring me to thank me and they’ll tell me they don’t care what the DNA test says, they regard it as their child anyway.’

The process to unravel those DNA secrets is simple.

First, those who want a test make an appointment to see Pam. They fill out a form with family history details, and then turn up for the appointment.

Pam uses two swabs to collect cells from the inside of the mouth, which are then left to air dry for two hours before she seals them in an envelope and sends them off to Alpha Biolaboratories in Manchester for testing.

People then either get the results by phone, post or e-mail. Suddenly what can be years of waiting to find out the truth are over.

And the results are astonishing. Forty per cent of the putative fathers DNA-tested for paternity in the UK are not the child’s real father.

But what Pam does isn’t all about paternity testing. In some harrowing cases, she’ll be asked to settle a will dispute.

She says: ‘We’ll have a very wealthy family and some property – a castle or whatever – is being left to a son or a grandson. They may have unfairly and scurrilously decided that their daughter-in-law has been unfaithful.

‘I’d get a phone call from the grandmother – always the grandmother – saying the child doesn’t look like the rest of the family at all and can I do a very discreet DNA test.

‘I’ve only done about five of those over the years and they all come back with a 99.996 per cent match, which is the highest match there is, that the child is really the father’s.’

DNA is found within cells as a twisted double helix. During testing, the helix is broken and the DNA is separated into strands.

A child’s DNA will be made up of both the mother and the father’s DNA, so in testing all the child’s DNA which matches the mother’s is taken out. What’s left should be a match for the father’s.

The reason why the test can never give a 100 per cent probability of a child being the offspring of a particular man is that he could have an identical twin – and identical twins have identical DNA.

It’s the certainty of DNA that makes it invaluable in settling court cases where defendants can be tied to a crime scene, or in immigration cases.

Pam says: ‘We’ll have a man who says he should be allowed to stay in this country because he has a son who was born here. It’s up to us to gather the DNA evidence to be used in the court case.’