News Ι Press Ι Project 150: Hamburg laboratory conceives globally unique project

Project 150: Hamburg laboratory conceives globally unique project

29. Februar 2016

In the biggest identification project of all time, the government of the state of Vietnam wants to recover the victims of the Vietnam War from mass graves, identify them genetically and give them to their families so that they can be honoured and buried according to their culture. The concept for the implementation of “Project 150” comes from Hamburg: at the end of 2015, as part of two-year project planning, Prof Wolfgang Höppner, founder of the genetic laboratory Bioglobe, outlined the project flow and signed a contract that includes the comprehensive knowledge and technology transfer to Vietnam. In the course of the project, laboratories in Hanoi are to be largely equipped with German technology so that the identifications can be performed in the country itself.

Today, Katharina Fegebank, second mayor and Senator for Science, Research and Equality of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, congratulated the project participants. “The award of a project of this scale underlines the national and international significance of Hamburg as a location for life science,” says Fegebank. “Such milestones become possible only when science, research, business and politics work closely together. Vietnamese families can now bury their relatives and war victims can receive a worthy final resting place. I am pleased that, in the UKE and its Institute for Legal Medicine, the companies have found a highly competent partner for this important regeneration project.”

Today, with training starting for the first Vietnamese scientists in Hamburg, Wolfgang Höppner presented details of the project to the public for the first time. “The highly sensitive project constitutes an exciting and major challenge for all involved,” he explained. “The scientific and technological as well as the cultural and social implications of the project are immense; after all, it involves hundreds of thousands of dead people, regarding whom we do not know who they are, as well as hundreds of thousands of living people who we require for a genetic comparison so as to be able to identify their relatives.” Tran Dong, Embassy Councillor for Science and Technology of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, explained what social and political significance the project has for his country. “For Vietnam, the identification project constitutes a decisive step in dealing with our painful past,” he said. “Only once the dead people have been identified and buried can many families really find peace.”

Complicated starting situation

Complex forensic knowledge as well as extensive experience are required for the identification of the genetic material. For instance, the condition of the DNA material is heavily damaged by the subtropical climate, which necessitates special methods and procedures. Nevertheless, there is no alternative, believes Prof Klaus Püschel. “For relatives, it is extremely important to obtain information about whether and how missing people have died, so that they can acquire access to the place of mourning and thus obtain a link to the loved one,” says Püschel. “This affects the country of Vietnam as well as other places that have become the scene of death and mourning on a large scale, such as the Balkan states, the USA on 9/11 as well as the country of Syria today.” The Institute for Legal Medicine of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) is involved in various other identification projects and possesses a large amount of molecular-biological expertise, including from the Bosnian War, Ruanda and other war settings.

Experienced consortium

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a global, donation-financed organisation that clears up the fate of missing persons after natural disasters, wars and civil wars, assists Bioglobe in an advisory capacity and will continue to accompany the project. The consortium that will be involved in the implementation consists of Bioglobe as the conception and training partner, the Institute for Legal Medicine of the University of Hamburg as well as several industrial partners, including the global biotechnology firm QIAGEN as well as Hamburg-based Eppendorf AG. Both provide innovative technology for acquiring and analysing genetic information from the bones of the war victims. “The success of Project 150 stands and falls with the question of whether we can acquire meaningful findings from the extremely difficult sample material,” emphasises Christian Starke from QIAGEN. “We are pleased to support this important project with our network, know-how and infrastructure. Our standardised and automated processes are tailored to the special project requirements such as the testing of sample quality and thus contribute to as fast and efficient a project flow as possible.” The same applies to the equipment and consumable articles of Hamburg-based company Eppendorf, which provides further laboratory equipment and supports the project with such services as the free provision of large laboratory equipment, such as thermocyclers, which are used to duplicate the DNA material. “Above all, the high specificity and correctness of our equipment and the resulting accuracy of the results are of great importance for the success of this project,” says Rainer Treptow from Eppendorf.

Launch of the project with training


Project 150 starts with the training of six young Vietnamese scientists from the Academy of Science and Technology, Hanoi. For three months, they will be trained in use of the highly complex DNA analysis equipment at Bioglobe in Hamburg and at QIAGEN in Hilden. In addition, part of the training, conducted by ICMP, will take place in Sarajevo. Since the ICMP was established after the Yugoslav Wars in order to clear up the fate of the missing persons, the organisation runs an office there and can contribute valuable expertise. “I am very pleased to welcome the Vietnamese colleagues to our laboratory today,” says Wolfgang Höppner. “After the project was planned and prepared so intensively, it makes me very confident that the implementation can now begin.”

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