Super-fast DNA machine developed by International Scientists

The following article appeared in the City Press on City Press on Sunday, 17 October 2010

By Fadela Slamdien, West Cape News

A machine able to match a suspect’s DNA with crime scene samples within four hours has been developed by UK and US-based scientists. The machine, developed by Andrew Hopwood from the Forensic Science Service in the UK and Frederic Zenhausern from the University of Arizona, is able to compare crime scene samples to cells harvested from the inside of a suspect’s cheek.However, this breakthrough technology may make little difference to the turnaround time for samples at South Africa’s two SAPS Forensics Science Laboratories, which currently is 60 days, according to Colonel Luhein Frazenberg from the SAPS Biology lab who last month presented at the Interpol DNA User’s Conference in France.

The microfluidic platform is inserted into the instrument for STR profiling of suspects in police custody.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa this week said South Africa’s forensic backlog has decreased by almost 20 percent, with the backlog in the biology unit under which DNA analysis falls, decreasing by 33 percent due to a re-evaluation of skills, equipment and human resources.

But Vanessa Lynch, executive director of the DNA project (an initiative which aims to be a “public voice” on the challenges facing DNA forensics in South Africa) said despite the very sophisticated forensics technology in existence, a number of obstacles prevented the successful and efficient prosecution of criminal cases and had a negative impact on the criminal justice system.

These included a shortage of qualified forensic specialists, lack of DNA awareness at the crime scene, and inadequate and outdated legislation.

She said part of the problem was that the first people to usually arrive at a crime scene were not qualified to collect DNA evidence and often contaminated or destroyed evidence.

“A crime scene investigator has only one chance to collect proper evidence at a crime scene, and this job is regularly thwarted by the destruction of a crime scene due to the negligence and /or ignorance of all or some of the public, emergency services, private security guards and first responding police officers, who arrive at the crime scene before the crime scene investigator,” said Lynch.

The absence of a formal training path in Forensic DNA Analysis was another impediment. There was previously no tertiary training in South Africa for forensic DNA analysts, she said. As a result the DNA Project has developed a postgraduate honours course in forensic DNA analysis which it now offers free of charge to all tertiary institutions willing to offer the course as part of their curriculum.

Karen Ehlers, lecturer in the department of Genetics at the University of the Free State, which launched the honours course at their university this year, said there was a need for training in the field and the SAPS training programme which trains BSc. graduates was not cost effective at R450 000 per person.

“This has an implication for training at the FSL (SAPS Forensic Science Lab), since all of these people have different training backgrounds. The SAPS have to spend a lot of time and money training the new personnel, only to lose some of them afterwards who realized that this is not the career for them. A degree in forensic genetics will ensure that people applying for posts as DNA forensic analysts will have a better understanding of a career in forensic genetics. SAPS will also have to spend less time training these DNA analysts,” she said.

But the most pressing issue for the DNA Project is the introduction of new legislation that would create a Convicted Offender Index on the DNA database in South Africa, allowing police to obtain the DNA profile from previously convicted offenders. The legislation would also allow police to collect DNA samples from all persons arrested for a suspected offense as well as prescribe that all evidence collected from a crime scene be processed for DNA profiling.

Internationally, the DNA profiles of convicted criminals are included in the country’s National DNA Databases. South Africa has about 123 000 profiles on its current database, whereas the US has about eight million and the UK about six million.

To address these and other challenges within forensic investigations, the government drafted the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (DNA Bill) in 2008 which is still under review. – Fadela Slamdien, West Cape News

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