Texas' new missing persons DNA database is generating a fresh sense of hope for people involved in the search for missing persons, including families worried about a missing loved one, detectives and medical examiners.
The DNA Identity Lab at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth developed the database over the past two years and started accepting DNA samples Jan. 1, 2003. Its staff of forensic geneticists will use a direct link to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to expand the search beyond Texas' borders.
Nearly 100 sheriffs, police chiefs, FBI agents, medical examiners, DPS officers gatherer at the health science center March 21 to learn more about the database, receive free DNA collection kits, and tour UNTHSC's DNA lab facilities.
The lab's forensic experts will first focus on cases involving children. They will eventually help in a variety of missing persons cases, including cases involving kidnapped children, runaways, the physically or mentally disabled, and those missing after a catastrophe.
The health science center is working closely with the Texas Department of Public Safety and its Missing Persons Clearinghouse to raise awareness of the Texas DNA database.
"In Texas alone, 70,000 people are reported missing each year, and 90 percent of them are under 18," said Heidi Fischer, program specialist with the clearinghouse. "Many of these cases are closed relatively quickly, but some remain open for years."
Fischer said the Texas DNA database offers the clearinghouse a new avenue to solve open cases that are beyond the scope of such traditional identification methods as fingerprints or dental records. When detectives have only skeletal remains or fragments of bone, they must turn to DNA testing. Cases with only the smallest fragments of materials like strands of hair or samples in bad condition, the more specialized mitochondrial DNA testing is the only option.
The health science center's DNA lab is one of only 17 facilities in North America capable of conducting mitochondrial DNA analysis, said Art Eisenberg, PhD, director of the DNA Identity Lab at the health science center.
"As the database and facility grow, the hope and success of identifying missing family members will grow as well. We could expand our DNA services beyond Texas' borders and become one of the nation's regional hubs for the collection and analysis of missing persons DNA data," Dr Eisenberg said.
The state legislature established the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database in 2001with $1 million from the Crime Victims' Compensation Fund. State Senator Chris Harris and State Rep. Charlie Geren sponsored the original legislation.
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