PIONEERING Southampton scientists have developed a new diagnostic kit for identifying serious chromosomal abnormalities, such as those associated with Down's syndrome and some cancers.

Internationally-renowned Professor Tom Brown and colleagues at Southampton University's department of chemistry have worked with Cytocell Ltd, a leading molecular diagnostics company, to come up with a fluorescent labelling technique which pinpoints genetic disorders.

Pieces of DNA "painted" with fluorescent components bind to and stain matching strands of chromosomes, lighting up any anomalies in size or number.

This provides scientists with a quick and easy way of examining all of the human chromosomes in a cell and detecting whether any have swapped or duplicated segments in their DNA. Such changes to the chromosome structure are linked to several serious genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome, leukaemia and some lymphomas.

Professor Brown said: "Better screening means more reliable diagnoses which, in turn, means that doctors can offer more appropriate treatment. We hope our work will contribute to further research into matching chromosomal changes with specific symptoms and conditions."

The kit will also be used in routine monitoring, for example to look for early signs of chromosomal damage in workers exposed to potentially high levels of radiation.

The partners have patented a technology called Scorpions that rapidly detects DNA sequence changes that can give rise to genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

"As the sequence of the human genome is unravelled and molecular genetics becomes more sophisticated, we are learning more about the link between DNA mutations and a variety of diseases," added the professor. "There is a hope and expectation that a wide range of clinical conditions will be shown to have a genetic basis."

"This means that it will be possible to analyse the DNA of individuals and predict their future susceptibility to many illnesses.

"This will enable prevention or early treatment, thus relieving suffering. In addition, it may be possible to tailor specific drugs and drug doses to individual patients thus maximising efficacy."