Technology that can provide a full DNA profile in 90 minutes, potentially identifying a suspect while a crime scene is still being worked, is the focus of a new program at a Largo nonprofit that uses science to help the criminal justice system.
Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO), a Massachusetts-based life science firm, has established a Rapid DNA Center of Excellence within the National Scientific Forensic Technology Center at Florida International University in Largo. The center combines cutting-edge DNA analysis technology with hands-on DNA training.
“We are thrilled to open the Center of Excellence in Largo,” said Martin Guillet, vice president and general manager, human identification, at Thermo Fisher. “Florida has always been progressive with crime fighting, pushing boundaries to get answers faster. Florida law enforcement agencies have been validating Rapid DNA technologies since their introduction and continue to lead the way.”
The Center of Excellence aims to be a resource for law enforcement laboratory partners, both in Florida and internationally, said Kevin Lothridge, executive director of NFSTC.
“We envision sharing with them new technology, techniques and knowledge, and to learn from them as they work to keep their communities safer and the criminal justice system strong and effective,” Lothridge said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center Wednesday.
Accuracy and cost
While conventional DNA methods can take up to eight hours and require several different pieces of equipment, Rapid DNA takes a fraction of that time and requires one piece of equipment, about the size of a printer. It’s designed to be used by a non-scientist operator with a process described as “swab in, profile out.” A cheek swab is collected and placed into a cartridge that is interested into the Rapid DNA equipment, which analyzes it.
“Our Rapid DNA platforms are used internationally for crime fighting, offering rapid results in the lab, law enforcement agencies or in the field,” Guillet said. “With Rapid DNA, forensic results can be obtained in approximately 90 minutes for use in criminal investigations, providing valuable information while suspects are still in custody.”
Thermo Fisher has been a key player in forensic DNA testing for more than 25 years. In 2018, Thermo Fisher acquired IntengenX, including its Rapid DNA platform.
“Thermo Fisher’s mission has been to bring Rapid DNA technology into the everyday crime lab,” said Ariana Wheaton, who handles global market development for the company. “When we acquired IntengenX last year, our focus was bringing the accuracy to a standard the forensic community can accept. What we’re seeing is about 98 percent accuracy with the Rapid DNA platform and we continue improve on a daily basis.”
That figure applies to cheek swab samples, she said. Other types of evidence are better handled in a traditional laboratory setting, but Rapid DNA also can help with that.
“What rapid does on that side is offer an investigative lead, a tool to law enforcement to help triage the number of samples they are sending to a laboratory so that they don’t overburden the laboratory with materials that won’t return probative results. Then they can just hone in on the samples they know are likely going to give a result in the laboratory environment,” she said.
The cost for Rapid DNA is higher than for conventional DNA analysis on a sample-to-sample basis — about $3 to $4 for traditional processing versus $150 for the Thermo Fisher system. But the overall cost of crime fighting could decrease with the technology, Wheaton said.
“By having the information earlier in the process, you are reducing the expense you have in putting officers out to have to re-arrest somebody after they’ve let them go,” she said. “A lot of times, they are finding that people are pleading out and they’re not having to go to court, so you are saving court fees.”
‘Booking station’ pilot
DNA profiles generated from reference samples may be eligible for upload to the FBI’s DNA database, CODIS.
Five states, including Florida, are participating in the FBI’s “Booking Station” pilot program that has successfully uploaded the first seven Rapid DNA samples to CODIS, Wheaton said, citing an announcement at the International Chiefs of Police meeting in Chicago last month.
“The goal is that by early 2020 they will be able to … put a sample in the Rapid DNA platform and get a result at the other end in an automated fashion where both the laboratory and law enforcement agencies can be notified of a direct hit from a Rapid DNA platform,” Wheaton said.
The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 authorizes the FBI to issue standards and procedures for the use of the equipment, and the law enforcement agency has started doing that, Wheaton said.
“They announced they have formed a working group to evaluate the use for the investigative lead process and they recently published standards posted on their website that talk about the use of non-CODIS Rapid DNA,” she said.
For instance, law enforcement agencies might be asked to take two sample swabs — one for use by the rapid DNA technology and one for a conventional lab analysis.
“If you get to a point where you have to take it to court, you will need confirmation from the traditional lab. So Rapid DNA really is still just the pointer to say we have enough information here to continue to hold a suspect or know that we’ve got what we need from a crime scene, but you still want confirmation from the laboratory,” Wheaton said.