Rapid DNA biometrics identify victims in 90 minutes in California boat fire case

dna-profile

Passengers and a crew member killed in a boat fire in September off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California, were successfully identified by Rapid DNA, which leverages technology funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and developed by Massachusetts- and Colorado-based ANDE Corporation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced.

“The Santa Barbara Sheriff-Coroner relied heavily on a Rapid DNA instrument to identify the victims in 10 days,” said Chris Miles, the S&T Program Manager who led the Rapid DNA project. “That is an amazingly fast resolution to the disaster that just wouldn’t have been possible before.”

The Rapid DNA instrument was borrowed from the Sacramento County Coroner after it was originally successfully used in the Camp Fire wildfire victim identification in 2018 when it identified 85 percent of victims.

Developed under the DHS S&T Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, Rapid DNA analyzes DNA to confirm kinship and victim identity in mass casualty events and human trafficking. DHS and S&T invested $5 million in ANDE Corporation’s research to develop the instrument that can allegedly identify a victim in 90 minutes, while previous methods took anywhere from six to 24 months.

“I created the term ‘Rapid DNA’ as shorthand for a system that would allow nontechnical users to generate DNA identifications outside the lab in less than two hours,” says Richard Selden, founder of ANDE Corporation. “When I met Chris Miles more than 10 years ago, he believed in Rapid DNA, pursued it, found funding for it, and advocated for it. Chris believed Disaster Victim Identification would be a great application for Rapid DNA. All that played a major role in our success.”

Because it analyzes ‘junk DNA,’ also known as ‘short tandem repeats,’ which does not code for genes, Rapid DNA protects privacy because it does not reveal individual characteristics or medical issues.

The technology has been tested in both mock exercises and real disaster situations, and the number of jurisdictions using the technology is increasing. The research team is working on improving Rapid DNA to store information so samples can be provided remotely.

S&T is collaborating with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) to use the instrument in daily criminal investigations and regional disasters.

“As there are 19,000 police departments across the U.S., the applications of Rapid DNA are huge,” said Dr. Ray Wickenheiser, Director of the New York State Police Crime Laboratory System. “DNA data is more objective than an eyewitness. Further improving Rapid DNA is even better because it strengthens public safety or identifies the victims to bring closure in the event of a disaster.”

Utah has been using the technology since 2018 to identify suspects and exclude non-suspects, while Kentucky is using it in sexual assault cases.

The use of Rapid DNA testing at the U.S. border has been expanded by ICE this year, but also met with criticism from rights advocacy groups.

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