New Center of Excellence to Focus on Rapid DNA
Written by Kristi Mayo   

CRIME LABS, LAW ENFORCEMENT, and first responders who want to learn more about Rapid DNA technology now have a resource in Largo, Florida. In November, the Rapid DNA Center of Excellence held a ribbon cutting at its facility, recently established at the National Forensic Science Technology Center at Florida International University.

The Rapid DNA Center of Excellence is a collaboration between NFSTC@FIU—an organization that provides forensic training, assessment, research, and technology assistance—and Thermo Fisher Scientific, a manufacturer of Rapid DNA technology. The center will combine DNA analysis technology with hands-on DNA training.

Rapid DNA experts with the NFSTC@FIU and Thermo Fisher said the goals of the center are threefold:

1) Offer focused Rapid DNA training and research opportunities;
2) Build familiarity with Rapid DNA technology and how it can be used to assist law enforcement; and
3) Provide a location where customers interested in Rapid DNA technology can schedule a visit to see how the instrument performs first-hand.

The development of the center comes at a time when Rapid DNA technology is gaining traction in a number of applications, including booking stations and mass fatality incidents. In one example, the Bensalem (Pennsylvania) Police Department—which has experimented with Rapid DNA since its first pilot project in 2013—became the first police department to install a Rapid DNA unit in their booking station. Since launching that booking-station project in 2017, the department has seen a 40% reduction in property crimes.

The technology has also found a niche in mass fatality incidents, such as California wildfires and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. “Because Rapid DNA can provide quick identification of remains, families can get closure,” said Ariana Wheaton, senior market development manager with Thermo Fisher Scientific. “Instruments have been field-deployed to the sites of disasters, most notably the Camp Fire last year in California as part of the disaster-victim identification response.”

Rapid DNA “became the first resort” for providing identification for victims when comparing dental records or fingerprints wasn’t possible, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, which partially funded the Rapid DNA effort in Paradise, California. There, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office invited representatives from Rapid DNA company ANDE Corporation to assist at the disaster site with technology capable of simultaneously analyzing five DNA samples in 90 minutes.

The United States border offers another venue for application of the technology. “Rapid DNA is being used at the border to validate or disprove family relationships of immigrant families, thereby aiding in identifying potential child traffickers,” said Wheaton. The DHS began utilizing Rapid DNA units at the border in May 2019.

All of these uses, said Robert O’Brien, Forensic Biology section lead at NFSTC@FIU, play to the proven strengths of Rapid DNA. “Currently, the best applications are any application where a single-source sample needs testing, and especially where speed is of the essence,” he explained.

Where the technology currently falls short, however, is where samples might be degraded, mixed, or otherwise compromised—in other words, crime scene samples. Today’s Rapid DNA technology cannot “duplicate the results achieved from conventional DNA methods” on difficult samples, said O’Brien.

“Crime scene samples, by their nature, are unique and can contain a wide variety of variables, including DNA mixtures,” said Kevin Lothridge, executive director at NFSTC@FIU. “With this technology at such an early stage of implementation, there needs to be more study of instrument performance on these types of samples to ensure best practices and processes where available.”

Tylor Barnhardt, NFSTC@FIU forensic technologist at the Thermo Fisher Rapid DNA Center of Excellence, puts a swab in the cartridge before placing it in the instrument for analysis. Image courtesy NFSTC@FIU.

This kind of study is exactly what the Rapid DNA Center of Excellence aims to perform. According to Lothridge, as the center works to develop training, research, and validation guidelines, the group hopes to also collaborate with all stakeholders, including crime labs, law enforcement agencies, and Rapid DNA instrumentation vendors adhering to FBI and SWGDM guidance.

As Rapid DNA technology continues to develop and deploy to a growing number of agencies and applications, the experts at the Rapid DNA Center of Excellence plan to be on the forefront of training, testing, research, and new product evaluation. And the technology is expected to grow.

“As with many new technologies, when costs come down, the applications can be applied more broadly. For example, Rapid DNA can be used as a triage tool,” said O’Brien. “We also expect Rapid DNA technology to improve in terms of speed, sensitivity, and data quality.”

About the Author

Kristi Mayo is the editor/publisher of Evidence Technology Magazine.

This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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