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New franchise tests genes

Company is Portland's first private firm to offer DNA analysis to walk-in clientele
by: L.E. BASKOW, Rithya Tang opened the first local, private DNA testing business last month in Northeast Portland.

This is what Rithya Tang first told the husband and wife who found their way to his Portland office: Open and honest communication is the key to a happy marriage.

But this is what he told them right after that: Yes, his company would be happy to do DNA testing to determine whether one of them was cheating on the other.

It's 2006. And gone are the days when someone who was worried about a cheating spouse only could hire a private detective to tail him, or her. Or the days when a woman could establish that a man was her child's father only through a court order and expensive blood testing.

These days, an increasing number of private companies are willing, for a fee, to use recent scientific advances - through genetic testing - to deal with age-old issues.

And one of those companies, DNA Services of America, just last month opened an office in Northeast Portland.

The main two reasons people use his company's services, says Tang, head of the Portland office of DNA Services of America, is to try to establish paternity of a child and to investigate possible infidelity.

'If somebody suspects their partner is not being faithful, they can bring in an article of clothing, and we can do an analysis to see if there are bodily fluids that would have DNA on them. And then we can compare that to the partner,' says Tang, who is an economist and was in international business in Malaysia before moving to Portland and establishing the DNA franchise.

There now are dozens of companies nationwide that provide some form of genetic testing. While some medical experts question the validity or usefulness of some of the tests, the companies and tests make a range of promises.

The tests can, according to the companies, tell someone whether they are at risk for particular diseases. Or can trace their ancestry. Or can help choose medicines that work best for their bodies.

Paternity tests typical

By far the most common tests - and probably the most reliable in terms of scientific validity - are the DNA identification tests, on which DNA Services of America focuses. They are the tests to determine, for example, who a child's father is.

State governments have been involved in the issue for years, to try to establish whether a man legally must make child support payments to a woman.

But changes during the last decade or so - in science and government requirements - have propelled the demand for the private services, Tang and others say.

First, scientific advances mean paternity can be established through a simple DNA testing procedure: a cotton swab wiped inside a cheek. No longer is a comparatively expensive and prickly blood test required.

Second, federal guidelines now require that an assumed father in an unmarried couple be asked to sign a 'voluntary acknowledgment of paternity' at the hospital when a child is born.

Sometimes, Tang says, the man feels compelled to sign, even if he believes he might not be the father. Later, Tang says, he may want to determine whether he is, or prove that he's not.

And he finds his way to companies like DNA Services of America.

While scientific advances have made the tests less expensive and easier, the private services still aren't cheap. DNA Services of America offers at-home tests for $295, and more stringent tests that a court of law would accept for $450. (The Red Cross, which has been doing some form of DNA testing for 25 years, charges a fee of $500.)

State analysis still cheaper

For people trying to establish paternity, at least, there are much cheaper ways to go.

The state of Oregon's child support program allows anyone to enter the program to try to determine who a child's father is, says Ronelle Shankle, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice, which administers the program.

The program can get a court order compelling a man to submit to a DNA test, if necessary, and that man can then be assessed the costs of the test if he is determined to be the father, Shankle says. The cost of the triad test - DNA testing of the father, mother and child - is $90, Shankle says.

Still, Shankle says, there are reasons people may go the private route, including not wanting to enter a system that eventually could force them to pay child support.

And private testing through places like DNA Services of America can be much quicker. DNA Services has a laboratory in Ohio conduct all tests; results are usually available in three to five days, Tang says.

And then there are all the other reasons for private DNA testing, including investigating a possibly wayward spouse.

With Tang's office still relatively new, word on how his company might help with such issues is getting out through some strange means.

The couple who came to talk about his infidelity services?

The woman was given his company's phone number after calling operator information, Tang says.

She had called looking for a lie detector service.

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