FORT WORTH, Texas—The quality of the evidence is critical to solving any crime, and when trying to identify a rapist, crime labs need the best specimen available. Successful DNA testing can mean the difference between an unsolved crime and an arrest.
The DNA Identity Laboratory at the University of North Texas Health Science Center is working on an innovative system that, if successful, will enhance the quality of the specimen by first separating sperm from the rest of the sexual assault evidence and then amplifying its DNA.
"This antibody/magnetic bead reagent system should offer the forensic community a differential extraction methodology that results in greater yields and higher purity of sperm DNA," said Arthur J. Eisenberg, PhD, director of the DNA Identity Lab.
The National Institute of Justice has awarded $272,000 to the health science center to fund the DNA research. Researchers will evaluate the reagent system and attempt to automate the cellular sorting method that isolates the sperm cells from other evidence.
Current methods to extract sperm and purify DNA for sexual assault evidence can be lengthy and tedious. The extracting procedures are often incomplete, and the final product may contain DNA from both the victim and the assailant.
An automated extraction system is essential to decrease the existing backlog of unresolved sexual assault cases in the United States. The long-term success of the new nationwide Combined DNA Indexing System also relies on analyzing all rape/sexual assault cases, especially those lacking a known suspect.
"Without an automated extraction system, the backlog of cases will continue to grow," said Dr. Eisenberg. "We’re hoping to change from the current labor intensive system to an automated one that produces better and faster results."
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 350,000 rapes and sexual assaults were experienced by persons age 12 or older in the United States in 1995. About 100,000 of these are actually reported to the authorities, with only approximately 25,000 cases analyzed by crime labs nationwide.
The health science center’s DNA Identity Laboratory provides scientific and technical support for Texas law enforcement agencies and crime labs. It provides DNA testing for the state of Texas in sexual assault cases that result in conception. The lab is the only public agency in Texas that performs mitochondrial forensic DNA testing.
The DNA Identity Laboratory was created in 1989 to provide paternity testing and forensic genetic screenings. Since then, the lab has performed more than 50,000 paternity tests.
This year, the UNT Health Science Center established a new master’s degree program in forensic genetics. The program trains professionals in forensic genetics at a level that surpasses the requirements instituted by the national standards for forensic DNA analysis. Graduates will be qualified to do forensic casework, human population genetics, parentage testing, criminalistics, genetic data analysis, human identification, biostatistics, wildlife forensics and molecular genetics.
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