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Providing Closure

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 10:25am
Robert Fee

A technician in a forensics training lab. (Source: Life Technologies)For 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi ran a ruthless regime in Libya. Although deposed in 2011, one of the sad legacies of his reign is a series of mass graves containing an estimated 20,000 human remains. But with this gruesome discovery comes a chance to solve decades-old missing person cases and provide closure to many families in the country. Using forensic DNA identification technologies, scientists employed by the Libyan government and its Ministry for the Affairs for the Families of Martyrs and Missing will soon begin this process in Tripoli. But first they need the tools and the training.

Life Technologies, through its Dubai-based distributor Integrated Gulf Biosystems, recently announced it will provide training and equipment to validate identifying workflows to assist in this process. The University of North Texas Health Science Center is partnering with Life Technologies to provide the training and accreditation for the lab. Initially, four researchers will receive training. Those four will then train the rest of the lab workers in Libya.

To start the process, Life Technologies will assist the Libyan researchers in creating a reference database with the help of  M-FISys, a database licensed from Gene Codes Forensics. This database contains DNA profiles of the families of missing persons and will be used to compare the unknown DNA from samples recovered at the mass graves to search for matches. M-FISys was originally developed to process more than 20,000 human remains from the World Trade Center disaster and has since been used to establish large scale victim identification infrastructures around the world, including national DNA databases in five countries. 

Creating a Global DNA Environment

Much of the established world recognizes and utilizes DNA analysis technologies to support their cultural systems—DNA databases continue to be developed to help identify criminals and their patterns of behavior. Most third-world countries don’t have the infrastructure, tools or knowledge to create that type of a support system. As a result, most third-world country crimes are limited in their ability to be prosecuted. Criminals are free to continue their illegal activities. Rape can be used as political weapon and massive crimes against humanity can go undetected for decades.

Armed with his company’s DNA technologies, Bode Technology’s Vice President of International Development, Ed Huffine is on a mission to change those situations. Visiting two to three new countries each month, Ed works to educate third-world administrators on the science of DNA, what the technologies can do and how the analyses can be applied. “Each country I visit has a different particular need and no two countries are identical,” says Huffine.

Implementing DNA analysis technologies into a third-world country works to build the safety and security for that nation. It ensures that criminal activities can be successfully prosecuted and those who are innocent are exonerated. The time frame for these investigations is also nearly unlimited. For example, in 1984, units of the Peruvian Army executed 123 men, women and children. Nearly 30 years later, scientists used Bode Technology to identify these victims through the DNA analysis of their skeletal remains. DNA technologies have also been used to identify acts of genocide in Bosnia.

“We live in the Golden Age of DNA analysis,” says Huffine. This technology has the ability to save lives, save money, and transform society.

- Tim Studt

“We take DNA first from all the people that are missing loved ones. We put their DNA profile in a database. Then when [we] look at a bone fragment and extract DNA off of it, we have the ability to match that DNA with the DNA of the people that we know,” says John Gerace, Head of Applied Sciences at Life Technologies. “That’s how we connect a missing person with their family.”

Human remains samples will be processed using Life Technologies’ PrepFiler BTA chemistry, which, the company says, is optimized to isolate DNA from bones and teeth in combination with its AmpFlSTR NGM SElect PCR Amplification Kit and MiniFiler Kit, designed for heavily degraded samples. Reference samples will be processed using direct amplification technology, combining Copan NUCLEIC-CARD with NGM SElect Express. Researchers can run up to 100 samples in about six hours.

While Life Technologies optimized and automated this process, it is not without difficulties. Although matches can be found with as little as one sample, degradation matters. According to Gerace, the best samples to work with come from fluids—blood or sputum for example. While those types of samples can be collected for the reference library, they are not an option for the samples, mostly bone or teeth, originating from victims.

“What we have done in terms of our expertise is that we basically industrialized the whole DNA forensics process,” says Gerace. “Starting with our chemistries and our kits, we’ve optimized the extraction of DNA out of bone, teeth and adhesives, which are used to lift DNA off of material objects. We’ve put a lot of intellectual property into optimizing the extraction of DNA. When we do that, we think about automation, so we can process hundreds of samples a day with just one line of our automated systems.”

Once researchers have their samples processed, the matching can begin. They accomplish this by looking at short regions of the DNA at different locations that have repeat patterns in both the reference library and the sample taken from a mass grave. The data generated from this is simply a pair of 13 numbers, so concerns about large amounts of data are minimal.

Although Life Technologies has worked on similar projects, such as identifying 9/11 victims at ground zero, victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Gerace says this project’s story is unique. “This particular application has profound humanitarian aspects to it,” he says.

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