Short Take: “If” The Science Holds Up?

DNA has been both miracle and curse to criminal law. It can prove innocence, and may be useful in proving guilt. But it comes with a great many issues as well, such as the fact that DNA likes to travel and won’t stay where we want it to stay, whether in the lab or the street. Without recognition of the problems, the miracle can prove dangerous and deceptive. Even gold standards tarnish.

What many may not realize is that DNA testing takes time, both to handle it well and avoid contamination and to just perform the analysis. It’s one of the reasons that testing isn’t as quick and easy as people imagine. But what if it could be done quickly, when the trail was still hot? It could mean an innocent didn’t spend needlessly long time in jail, or under threat of prosecution, and the perpetrator of a heinous crime could be arrested before he harmed someone else. Wouldn’t this be great?

[Obligatory anecdote of stranger rape omitted.]

But the alleged attack occurred while the Kentucky State Police laboratory was evaluating a new “rapid DNA” instrument, which is marketed as a way to identify suspected rapists in hours, while victims are still being treated.

Rapid DNA? Cool right?

If the technology works, it could revolutionize the way rapes are investigated in America, where hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits remain untested and only a third of reported rapes result in an arrest.

Whoa. “If”? This proprietary test is being “real world tested” by police even though its efficacy remains to be seen?

The case, still pending trial, reflects the power and the potential of rapid DNA testing as it slowly spreads through the criminal justice system. That growth, driven by two competing companies, has unfolded with little government oversight: While the FBI urges caution, and judges have not yet allowed rapid DNA evidence to be presented at trial, the manufacturers have pitched the technology directly to local agencies. Police have used rapid DNA in ways that push the boundaries of standard law enforcement practice, to analyze crime scene evidence and take DNA samples from people suspected of low-level crimes.

While the Rapid DNA test might not be admissible yet, that doesn’t mean cops aren’t using it to identify perps and arrest people. Have there been any warrants obtained to send in the SWAT teams? Who knows? What is known is that this test has yet to be proved valid, in itself, and is intended to be used only by careful and highly-trained technicians anyone.

In the conventional method, trained laboratory analysts extract DNA from a sample, measure how much there is, make copies of it and then run it through an instrument that produces a unique string of numbers. That code is the person’s DNA profile.

Those steps take hours to complete and require the use of instruments across several rooms of a laboratory. Rapid DNA packs it all into one step: A scientist ─ or crime scene technician, or police officer, or anyone, really ─ places the sample on a disposable “chip,” and puts it into the box. In less than two hours, the instrument produces a DNA profile.

There is a litany of problems with the test as of this point, particularly with “mixture” DNA, which is an inherent problem with testing rape kits, but with the possibility of rapid DNA analysis, and private companies pushing police to adopt it,

Proponents of the technology say early tests show it’s working, and critics and government bureaucrats are too slow to embrace rapid DNA, which could one day replace traditional DNA analysis.

“Rapid DNA is a new and disruptive technology,” said James Davis, a former FBI agent who is the chief federal officer for ANDE, one of the two companies marketing rapid DNA to law enforcement. ANDE worked with Kentucky police to test the technology on sexual assault cases, including the one in Louisville. “I think in time, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a long period,” Davis said, “it will be accepted as the standard.”

Will the cries for rapid DNA to catch rapists, or at least somebody, overwhelm the calls for testing and caution? There is no doubt that a faster way of testing DNA would be enormously useful for all involved, but only if the science holds up. If not, it will be a fast fiasco.

15 thoughts on “Short Take: “If” The Science Holds Up?

  1. Guitardave

    When i read this;
    “Davis said, “it will be accepted as the standard.”
    my little voice read;
    “Davis said, “it will be accepted as the standard, whether it works or not.”
    Silly little voice.

  2. rxc

    Forensic science, chemistry, political science, physics, social science, climate science.

    Which of these is not “science”?

  3. DaveL

    take DNA samples from people suspected of low-level crimes.

    So now when they “stop-and-frisk” young men of color for “furtive movements”, or being in an “area known for drug activity”, or “suspicious use of scare-quotes”, they now get to put their DNA into a database?

    1. Fubar

      I think not.

      Theranos was a well wrought scam, with no actual products or results.

      There are at least two domestic manufacturers of these “rapid DNA” devices: Thermo Fisher Scientific in Waltham, MA; and ANDE in Longmont, CO;

      Thermo Fisher Scientific is a huge company, 70,000 employees, founded in 2006 by merger of Thermo Electron (founded 1956) and Fisher Scientific (founded 1902), each with with a long track record for quality products. ANDE is more obscure, and appears to have only one product, “rapid DNA” devices.

      I am not a biologist or chemist. I do not know how they make polymerase chain reactions happen fast enough to analyze a miniscule sample in less than 2 hours. I do not even know whether they use PCR, or some other means to produce sufficient quantity to analyze, or whether they use some analysis method that does not require the quantity of material that currently accepted methods require..

      But I seriously doubt that Thermo Fisher Scientific would risk its more than 20 billion dollar (with a “b”) annual revenues (for all products) by producing a scam product.

      That is not to say that there are not sufficient error rates in these new devices’ DNA analyses to ultimately preclude their use as evidence at trial. But the question of whether either manufacturer is another Theranos does not depend on the answer to that question.

  4. Chris Halkides

    One of the linked stories discussed a study that indicated contamination within the machine itself. For me that would be a deal-breaker.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m sure the machine will come with sanitizing instructions, and the cops down at the stationhouse will be as diligent about cleaning the machine as they are about calibrating their radar guns with tuning forks.

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