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Rapid DNA Forum Showcases the Technology

If you only know about DNA testing from watching television, you may think the process goes “collect a sample, put it in a machine and boom! You have results.”

If you’re a forensic scientist, you know that the actual process is much more painstaking, includes more steps and takes much longer. However, with the August 2017 passage of the Rapid DNA Act by Congress and the movement of Rapid DNA technology into the commercial market, the “television perception” has moved one step closer to reality.

Rapid DNA instruments automate and accelerate things, allowing law enforcement officers trained in the process to take a cheek swab and use a Rapid DNA instrument housed in the station to produce a result. This result can then be compared to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and used, for example, to provide preliminary identification of victims and eliminate or confirm investigative leads. Current best practices call for law enforcement agencies to send additional samples to a DNA lab for confirmation that an expert witness can testify to in court.

hand holding a test tube with DNA code in background

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) invested in early advances in Rapid DNA in 2008 via research related to the creation of microchips for the eventual miniaturization and speedy processing of DNA. By 2017, its evolution had reached the point where a bipartisan bill backed by the forensic science and law enforcement communities permitted the comparison of Rapid DNA results to CODIS. Coincidentally, this bill became law on Aug. 18, one day after the end of a three-day Rapid DNA forum hosted by the NIJ Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE). This forum brought together not only members of the law enforcement community, but also representatives from various federal government agencies, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) and vendors.

“It was great to bring all of those stakeholders together so they could see each other’s points of view,” says Donia Slack, FTCoE associate director. “Law enforcement sees the technology as something they can do themselves — sample in, answer out. ASCLD wants to make sure they don’t push its limits in a way that puts a law enforcement officer on the stand who lacks the technical expertise to testify about the results. One of the things we did at the forum was showcase different use cases to emphasize the need to use this in tandem with results obtained from a crime lab.”

The forum gave the two commercial vendors the opportunity to present their technologies, including time for hands-on demonstrations, and gave participants time to exchange points of view and discuss the various ways in which the technology could be used.

“We gave law enforcement participants an opportunity to talk with FBI representatives about ‘Are we able to do this? How can we do that?’ ” says the FTCoE’s Sarah Norsworthy. “People have been talking about using it for years now and it’s finally at the forefront.”

In addition to being able to ask questions of the FBI representatives, law enforcement representatives had the opportunity to talk with forensic scientists from ASCLD, which is presently working on developing best practices guidance on how to use Rapid DNA technology responsibly, and also to discuss technology applications such as:

  • Pre-processing of sexual assault samples. Although much attention has focused on officers’ being able to take a cheek swab and process it immediately, the technology works with many types of casework samples.
  • Identification of remains in mass fatality events. Because the instruments are portable, they could be taken into the field and used at the site.
  • Improved border security. Using Rapid DNA technology could allow agents to quickly determine whether an individual has illegally crossed a border before or whether a group of individuals claiming to be a family are actually related, which has implications related to human trafficking.

“It was great to have all these people in the room and have them say, ‘Huh, I’ve been thinking about it all one way and there are all of these other applications,’ ” Slack says.

One drawback to implementing use of Rapid DNA is the cost, which puts the purchase price of an instrument out of reach for many medium and smaller law enforcement agencies.

“There are hefty costs and agencies will say ‘That sounds great but I don’t know if we can afford it,’ ” says Slack, noting that it costs approximately $100 to $150 to process each sample in addition to the purchase price of the instrument itself. “However, a DNA analyst pointed out to me that with the focus on violent crimes and sexual assault, when a high-profile case comes in, they have to stop everything they’re doing and process those samples. It interrupts the workflow on various instruments and disrupts individuals’ caseloads. With Rapid DNA, they could start that sample running and continue with the rest of their day. In that case, the savings from enhanced efficiency would offset the cost of the processing.”

Norsworthy further notes that vendors are often willing to work with individual agencies on pricing, and will also provide initial training and assistance with setup.

Taking all of those factors into account — the need for crime lab backup, learning best practices, considering ways to use the technology and the cost — gives law enforcement agencies much to consider about the technology. Agencies also need to consider the recently released position statement from ASCLD (http://www.ascld.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ASCLD-Position-Statement-RAPID-DNA.pdf), which states, in part “at this time, ASCLD supports a position for database inclusion of single source known reference profiles only. ASCLD supports a position for continued database inclusion of crime scene samples after expert review, as provided by current DNA testing protocols in an accredited crime laboratory.” The FTCoE can help with those technology considerations with its recently released In-Brief, which can be downloaded from https://rti.connectsolutions.com/p9f9rm31iju/.

For more information on the FTCoE Rapid DNA Technology Forum and the technology in general, contact Donia Slack at dslack@rti.org; or email Sarah Norsworthy at snorsworthy@rti.org.

Article photo:  isak55/Shutterstock