Rapid DNA technology is poised to speed up the identification of disaster victims

Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) is a vital task undertaken by forensic teams after mass casualty incidents. This involves comparing the DNA of deceased persons with that of living relatives and looking for family ties. Accurate and timely identification of victims is important for families, not only for emotional closure, but to help them navigate a complex web of urgent legal and administrative tasks that can free up access to the finances and support they need. badly need.

Researchers from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) and the Monash Department of Forensics (DoFM) recently wrote this expert opinion of a long-awaited emerging technology that could dramatically speed up the process and enable DNA analysis in the field – Rapid DNA. This could greatly benefit people facing large-scale disasters that overwhelm the response capacity of local authorities and may play a role in crime scene investigations and other activities.

Traditional DNA analysis involves many pinch points where time is wasted. Specimens must be transported to an accredited lab, case backlogs are slowing things down, and reporting pipelines are being replenished as qualified personnel are caught up in processing. A number of improvements have been made over the years, such as automating laboratory processes, reducing DNA test reaction times, and software-assisted interpretation of DNA profiles. While valuable, none of these change the fundamental processing pipeline itself.

First author Zoe Bowman is a Monash PhD student working clinically at VIFM. She says: “Members of our team helped DVI during the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and the Victorian Black Saturday fires of 2009. I think it’s fair to say that we, along with many other teams Forensic identification companies across the world, have been eagerly awaiting new technology that would enable DNA profiling in the field.

“Now it’s here, it’s important that it’s fully validated in a variety of scenarios.”

Fast DNA has been facilitated by the miniaturization of DNA testing technology through microfluidics and the development of specialized instruments. The new portable devices encapsulate the entire workflow and could potentially allow non-experts to perform sample testing in less than two hours.

“These are kind of like plug-and-play devices. You insert your sample swab along with a test card that contains all the chemicals needed for the test, and the result comes out. The user experience is really very simple. But there’s an incredible amount of technology behind that.

Although there are three commercially available Rapid DNA devices on the market, the decision to deploy them is still not a simple one. Traditional laboratory DNA profiling is well established as a reliable and robust technique, as are laboratory PCR tests for COVID-19. The use of Rapid DNA technology is somewhat comparable to the use of rapid antigen testing for COVID-19.

“To choose Rapid DNA over lab options, you need to determine exactly how the results will be used. Will it end up in court? In this case, the courts may not accept DNA results generated outside of an accredited laboratory. Are speed and ease of logistics more important to you than quality and cost per test? They might well be in a doomsday scenario, but perhaps less so in a routine crime scene investigation.

There are also unknowns regarding contaminants in samples that can interfere with analysis. Most Rapid DNA devices are designed to use buccal swabs. Recent use of tobacco or coffee by the sample donor may cause difficulties. However, most studies to date indicate that the effects are within acceptable limits in disaster scenarios.

What is less well studied is the interference caused by DNA decay over time, which can become a problem in disasters involving a long delay until victims are found, or in hot climates. The impact of chemicals often found at disaster sites – such as aviation fuel or flame retardant chemicals at plane crash sites – is also largely unknown at this point.

The flip side of collecting samples from deceased disaster victims is collecting samples from living people in search of missing loved ones.

Zoe says: “A recent example of this is the 2018 Camp Fire disaster in California which killed 85 civilians. Rapid DNA has been successfully deployed in the field in family centers, speeding up family sampling and freeing up laboratory staff to focus on more complex post-mortem samples.

Beyond DVI, the technology has a range of potential applications. In criminal investigations, a person of interest could be sampled and profiled upon arrest, with rapid database matching allowing arresting officers to link the person to other crimes during his detention. The technology can also play a role in immigration, military applications, missing persons investigations and the discovery of mass graves.

However, there are potential complexities that will need to be addressed. The presence of minute amounts of DNA, degradation over time, and DNA from multiple sources – human and animal – pose challenges for crime scene investigations, as does the likely lack of trained personnel capable of assess the suitability of the samples. Mass graves are often found in resource-poor areas with limited laboratory support. Rapid DNA technology could overcome this, but improvements in the analysis of degraded skeletal DNA are likely needed before the technology is widely adopted for this purpose.

Last author Acting Prof. Dadna Hartman says, “There is still a long way to go to test this technology and ensure that it is suitable for many different scenarios. But I am very optimistic that these will be overcome in due course, and it will be a very powerful tool that will bring faster closure and support to devastated families around the world.


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