Saturday December 09, 2023

Health diary: Time to make DNA lab autonomous body

February 06, 2023

PESHAWAR: Now when the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) laboratory is a hot subject in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, health experts and faculty members of the Khyber Medical College (KMC) have started demanding the caretaker government to take over the facility and declare it an autonomous body run by Home Department.

The DNA lab is presently functioning at the Forensic Medicine and Toxicology Department of the KMC and is facing serious challenges in terms of staff and financial resources.

“Worldwide, forensic labs are run by molecular biologists. It shall be declared as an autonomous body supervised by the provincial Home Department; nothing to do with the medical college,” opined a medical consultant and senior faculty member of the medical college.

Pleading anonymity, he said it was the only viable option for the government to develop the facility in the province and make it more capable to handle the modern-day challenges.

“Forensic lab has two components; biological and non-biological. The non-biological component is already with the Home Department. The biological component including the DNA lab shall be with Home Department and both components shall be autonomous under one umbrella as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Forensic Services Laboratory,” said the medical consultant.

Presently, they’re one only microbiologist and one serologist in the DNA lab. The kits, purchased by a former Dean, Prof Nurul Iman had almost been used and now the administration has no funds for procurement, apparently due to an unprecedented rise in dollar value. There is a long and painful story behind the DNA lab but the previous governments didn’t take any interest in developing the lab.

The concept of the DNA was there and a PCR machine was already purchased but the story started in 2013 when Prof Dr Nurul Iman KMC principal and submitted PC1 for expansion of the Forensic Department, including a mortuary to cater to mass disaster and establishment of quality DNA and toxicology lab. The site was cleared from the staff living there and a new building was built to house the DNA lab.

According to sources in KMC, Dr Nurul Iman got the project approved but was transferred from his position as principal after 10 months in office. Prof Ejaz Hasan Khan replaced him.

He remained in the chair for three years; got the project advertised thrice but could not award the contract due to reasons best known to him.

Again when Dr Nurul Iman was appointed principal of the college in 2017, he got the project advertised for the 4th time and awarded the contract to get the DNA lab established.

He was already working on it but luckily or unluckily an incident took place in Mardan in 2018 where a small girl was sexually assaulted and the report was sent to the Punjab government that owned the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA).

It became a political issue as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leadership challenged Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan, saying his party was in power in KP but couldn’t even set up a DNA lab. It prompted Imran Khan and he asked the provincial government to do it on an emergency basis.

Abid Majeed was serving as secretary of health at that time. He took a personal interest and tasked Dr Nurul Iman with functionalizing the DNA lab at any cost. The college administration then purchased kits in an emergency to get the lab run.

As far as the staff, the lab is still lacking it. According to sources, many competent people were there in the market and they were willing to serve but were not hired for unknown reasons.

“It suggested to the government to take over all the equipment and staff of forensic lab to establish a Forensic Science Lab headed by a molecular biologist instead of so-called forensic experts with required qualifications. The general cadre medical officers shall be given training in medico-legal reporting as a stop-gap arrangement till we have established a coroner system,” said the KMC faculty member.

KMC Principal Prof Dr Mahmood Aurangzeb was reportedly tired of asking the government to get the college rid of the DNA lab and its affair as it was costing the college resources heavily.