What is Rapid DNA Analysis...
Written by Mike Benevento   

...And should I be using it?

Rapid DNA analysis will ultimately be used to obtain DNA profiles from both reference and some crime scene samples in less than two hours—greatly increasing the speed of criminal investigations by providing actionable intelligence to the investigator that may exonerate or focus efforts on a person of interest. Additionally, this technology will automate more routine analyses, allowing the efforts of forensic scientists to be focused on more challenging evidence. Working together, forensic scientists and investigators will be able to properly implement this technology to aid investigations, while maintaining scientific integrity and validity.


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But the technology is still being introduced. Scientific, legal, and regulatory questions remain to be answered before it can be responsibly adopted for widespread use in crime laboratories and local police agencies nationwide. If you are thinking about purchasing a Rapid DNA Analysis instrument, it is important to recognize the technology’s current status and the risks and benefits associated with starting to use a system now.

Here are some questions to consider before purchasing a Rapid DNA analysis system.

What is Rapid DNA analysis?

Currently, the FBI limits its definition of Rapid DNA analysis to the fully automated, hands-free process of developing a CODIS profile from a reference sample buccal (cheek) swab. The “swab in—profile out” Rapid DNA instruments are intended to automate all of the DNA processing steps that take place in a forensic laboratory.

The big difference with Rapid DNA is that while it can be performed in a laboratory environment by a forensic scientist, there are also applications that will allow it to be directly used by law enforcement professionals (police officers, technicians, CSIs) in the police station or the field. Because the analysis and interpretation is done automatically using advanced software, minimal training is required, and as a result, a profile can be generated in under two hours. In the future, it is envisioned that these automated DNA profiles would then be searched against a portion of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the DNA database used by forensic laboratories across the country.

In a broader sense, however, Rapid DNA also refers to the processing of any DNA sample through the automated process mentioned above, regardless of its potential upload into CODIS. In theory, this could include samples beyond those collected at booking stations, such as reference samples in active investigations or high quality forensic evidence samples.

How can it be used right now?

The initial approach to Rapid DNA focuses on reference samples, as these are the easiest to process. Reference samples could be processed expeditiously for comparison to a high-profile or high-threat case. For example, a jurisdiction investigating a series of rapes that have already been linked by DNA could use this technology to process samples from persons of interest. In this scenario, an exclusion or inclusion to this serial crime pattern could potentially be provided before the conclusion of an interview—and before the subject must be released from questioning. Forensic laboratories and police agencies may also use a Rapid DNA system to compare reference profiles against locally-held DNA databases. However, there are concerns about starting to use such results and private databases to support criminal investigations (see: What are the risks?).

A Rapid DNA system may also prove useful for missing persons investigations and disaster victim identification. Rapid DNA can be used to process samples collected from family members and post-mortem samples, allowing the forensic scientist to make comparisons and identifications much faster than through traditional analysis.

In all current applications, Rapid DNA should be implemented in a well-designed manner that addresses both investigative and scientific requirements. It is highly recommended that any program be implemented in collaboration with the crime lab that processes samples in your jurisdiction.

Can I use a Rapid DNA analysis system to search samples against CODIS?

Currently, no Rapid DNA instrument has received the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS) approval required for automated uploading or comparing profiles with CODIS. The FBI is in the process of evaluating a number of systems currently on the market. Note that the FBI does currently allow Modified Rapid DNA Analysis uploads to CODIS, where the sample is uploaded and analyzed manually by an accredited lab professional. The FBI’s website (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/biometric-analysis/codis/rapid-dna-analysis) is the best source for information about the current state of approval of Rapid DNA instruments.
Congressional legislation is also required before it will be possible to upload DNA profiles generated outside of an accredited forensic laboratory to CODIS (see: Are any changes in the law needed?).

What samples can I analyze with a Rapid DNA instrument?

In the near term, the FBI envisions Rapid DNA analysis to be used for reference samples, where a buccal swab is taken from an individual or suspect in custody, analyzed, and then compared against existing profiles to identify any matches.

The existing Rapid DNA instruments are capable of processing a number of sample types, and there is huge potential for this technology to be used to analyze basic forensic casework. However, there are challenges associated with analyzing and interpreting data from a sample that can have relatively low levels of DNA or mixed sources of DNA. This means it is expected to be some time before the forensic science community, FBI, and law enforcement communities are satisfied that an automated expert software program can reliably handle this level of interpretation. Until that time, a Rapid DNA instrument can be used for preliminary analysis of crime scene samples before an additional manual review and interpretation of the results.

Are any changes in the law needed?

New Federal legislation will be needed in order for DNA records that are generated by Rapid DNA instruments outside an accredited laboratory to be uploaded to NDIS.

The Rapid DNA Act of 2014 was introduced by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin in December 2014, but not enacted. It was reintroduced in 2015. The proposed legislation is an addendum to the DNA Identification Act of 1994 that provides guidelines on how Rapid DNA analysis can be used by local law enforcement. This act is limited to the processing of reference samples on approved Rapid DNA instruments for inclusion in CODIS through collections authorized by federal or state convicted offender and arrestee legislation.

In addition to the federal legislation, states that restrict DNA processing to accredited crime labs will also need to consider amendments to local DNA laws and regulations.

Can I legally collect these samples and use the results in court?

Rules and regulations regarding how you collect, process, and store DNA samples vary from state by state, and will continue to apply locally. Some states require that all DNA samples are processed by accredited labs, which could affect the information’s admissibility in court. Additionally, as a new technology, there may be admissibility challenges in its early adoption. Therefore, it is advisable for any agency to adopt proper training, analytical, and QA/QC protocols for any Rapid DNA program.

Rapid DNA processing does not alter your local DNA collection authorities. All samples will still require a proper legal authority for collection, such as evidence properly collected from a crime scene, convicted offender laws, arrestee laws, court-ordered reference collections, and voluntary informed-consent reference collections. While most individuals are familiar with their states’ convicted offender laws, the concept of arrestee collection is still relatively new. Therefore, you also need to be clear on your state’s DNA collection laws for arrestees, as these vary. To familiarize yourself with the state-specific statute covering DNA collection, you can ask your state crime lab or local prosecutor’s office for the most updated version of the legislation.

What is the FBI’s plan for implementation, and how do my plans fit in?

The FBI has a well-advanced program for the introduction of Rapid DNA. However, this is just one part of a wider effort known as Next Generation Identification (NGI). You will need to know what your local plans are for NGI to ensure that any introduction of Rapid DNA for analyzing reference samples complies. Police should be in communication with their local crime laboratory that processes DNA evidence, the CODIS State Administrator or their AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) Administrator to learn more about the plan to implement NGI in their state.

What are the risks?

As with any new technology, there are risks associated with not implementing it responsibly. For instance, there have been significant challenges with the introduction of handheld breathalyzer technologies. Lack of robust validation of some instruments, weak operational protocols, or insufficient QA/QC prior to use by law enforcement led to a subsequent lack of reliability and serious concerns over the results. These factors have resulted in breathalyzer evidence being ruled inadmissible in some courts. It is important that Rapid DNA instruments are introduced in a controlled manner to avoid a similar fate.

DNA analysis has been viewed as the gold standard of the forensic science community due to its reliance on proper scientific validation, defensible analytical protocols, and QA/QC standards. While Rapid DNA presents a unique fieldable ability for DNA testing, it should not be implemented without collaboration with the forensic experts. Training, proficiency tests, analytical protocols, trouble-shooting, sample selection, and QA/QC will all require interactions with your appropriate crime laboratory. While important to the success of your program, this only represents a risk if an agency chooses to ignore the importance of proper implementation.

Additionally, if you begin using a Rapid DNA instrument without the ability to connect to CODIS, there is a risk for missed matches. While this risk is more associated with the recent trends of vendors to offer private DNA databases to local law enforcement, it is amplified through the notion that Rapid DNA instruments and a private DNA database is the “cure-all” answer to law enforcement’s investigative needs. Private DNA databases will help identify a limited number of matches; however, they will fail to generate the larger level matches across a state or the nation that are provided by CODIS. A sample may not generate a match in your local database, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an STR profile does not exist; you could be missing a match in CODIS. A better path forward is to work with your local CODIS laboratory in the development of any Rapid DNA program.

Responsible Adoption

The problems with breathalyzer technologies give us a clear warning of what can go wrong, so how can we ensure that the same doesn’t happen with Rapid DNA analysis?

It is only through responsible adoption of Rapid DNA that we will address the concerns raised by the legal community, forensic scientists, and the general public. This means a responsible, strategic approach to implementation—which may take longer, but ultimately ensures that valuable police time and resources are not wasted.

If you are interested in purchasing a Rapid DNA system, you can reach out to your local or state crime lab to receive assistance in the implementation plan for the technology.

Next Steps: NDIS Approval

Once the FBI approves specific devices for use with NDIS, many of the risks associated with using this new technology will be mitigated. NDIS approval represents the technical readiness of the technology under conditions intended to challenge the limits of the instrument. The testing conducted to support approval addresses all aspects of the Quality Assurance System that governs forensic analysis of DNA. Approval is the first step in a journey to build support for the changes required to laws and regulations that will permit expanded use of Rapid DNA in the future.

Additional Information

  • www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/biometric-analysis/codis/rapid-dna-analysis
  • www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/biometric-analysis/codis/codis-and-ndis-fact-sheet
  • www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/fingerprints_biometrics/ngi
  • swgdam.org/
  • www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/06/AR2010030602500.html

Before you buy
Questions to ask Rapid DNA analysis system vendors

Are there cost differences between the traditional DNA analysis method (laboratory tests) and Rapid DNA analysis?

When looking at upfront costs per sample, analyzing a DNA sample with a Rapid DNA instrument versus traditional lab techniques may appear to cost more than analysis with traditional equipment. However, processing DNA samples more quickly offers a number of advantages, especially in time-sensitive or high-priority cases. Rapid DNA also has the potential to enable DNA evidence to be used in instances such as property crimes, where it is not routinely used today. Once you begin to consider the total picture of the efficiencies Rapid DNA can offer to police investigations, and its potential to reduce violent crime and property loss, the economic case for use of Rapid DNA becomes more apparent.

Are there other costs included in the cost per sample price?

There are different rapid DNA instrument models, which means that maintenance costs and price per sample differ depending on which instrument you purchase. Some systems require a regular maintenance visit from the vendor or a swap out of the hardware in the system after a certain number of samples processed. Make sure to clarify these associated costs with the vendor so you understand any additional fees you may incur from using the system.


About the Author

Mike Benevento is the general manager of the Human Identification Business for GE Healthcare’s Life Sciences, a role he has held since January 2013. Since joining GE in 2000, he has held global leadership roles in six-sigma, operations management, and marketing. Mike earned a BS degree in biology from Bucknell University and an MBA from New York University.

 
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