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The ITAC Series - Investigating Rapid DNA: Use Cases, Limitations and its Future

Posted By Collin Evans & Alex McAdoo, Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Introduction

In our most recent blog series, Exploring the Advisory Committees, we took a deep dive into one of the many benefits of taking part in the IJIS community; being an active participant on the IJIS Advisory Committees. The advantages of being a member on these cross-sector, collaborative committees were highlighted through the exploration of committee membership, their achievements, and goals for the future. All while promoting the IJIS mission of driving public sector technology innovation and empowering information sharing to promote safer and healthier communities.

As depicted in the IJIS Technology and Architecture’s Advisory Committee’s (ITAC) portion of the series, the ITAC provides information and guidance to industry and practitioners regarding technologies, architectures, and standards that enable the successful adoption of technology and sharing of information. Over the next several months, the ITAC and its committee members will be releasing a series of short research “spotlight” blogs on a variety of different technologies related to the committee’s objectives. The committee will be focusing on topics that are innovative, emerging, underpublicized and not universally understood within the public sector community.

While this blog concentrates on RapidDNA: Use Cases, Limitations and its Future, we would love to hear your feedback on other technologies of curiosity moving forward. For any questions, comments, or inquiries about joining the ITAC, please contact: alex.mcadoo@ijis.org.  

Overview

Since the 1980’s, DNA profiling has arguably become one of the most important technologies available to law enforcement and public safety.  Throughout the past three decades, DNA evidence has been crucial in identifying criminals and homicide and disaster victims, as well as in determining genetic relationships. The accuracy and specificity of DNA analysis, as well as the ability to work with trace amounts of evidence, have provided the public safety community with an indispensable tool that has largely revolutionized the practice of law enforcement.

Despite its positive impact, DNA identification presents challenges related to cost, complexity, and efficiency.  DNA analysis is typically performed in a laboratory, requiring expensive equipment and highly-trained personnel.  Given these specialized and limited resources, backlogs are not uncommon, and test results may not be available for days, weeks, or even months.

Rapid DNA is a technology that provides the same accuracy as traditional DNA profiling but does so without the need for a laboratory or expert technicians.  The system is an “all-in-one” device capable of automatically producing a DNA profile from a sample.  As the name implies, the turnaround time is also significantly shorter – often as little as 90 minutes.

This blog is intended to provide a high-level overview of Rapid DNA technology, its use cases, limitations and future outlook.

What is Rapid DNA?

Rapid DNA is a process that allows for the fully-automated development of a DNA profile from a reference sample.  Rapid DNA implementations are self-contained, portable and require minimal training to operate.  Without human involvement, these devices automatically extract, amplify, separate and analyze a sample. Analysis results may then be exported to other specialized software for further review.  The process is essentially “swab in – profile out” with no manual steps in between.

The Rapid DNA devices themselves are small and portable, often the size of a kitchen microwave.  As such, they are useful in-house and in the field.  Their operation requires minimal training and can be used by a wide variety of personnel, regardless of job function or background.

Use Cases

Although Rapid DNA technologies serve many of the same use cases as traditional laboratory-based DNA testing, the speed, portability and convenience of Rapid DNA profiling enhances these use cases by providing information more quickly using less infrastructure and at a lower cost.

Examples include:

  • Arrest and Booking: Suspect DNA profiles can be created in-station upon arrest and booking.  This profile can be quickly matched to existing cases.  Traditionally, such an identification could only be obtained in days or weeks, at which point the subject may no longer be in custody.
  • Corrections: Collection of DNA profiles upon intake can be performed entirely on-site by existing staff.  Corrections management systems are immediately updated and profile information is automatically transmitted to external repositories.
  • Victim Identification: Positive identification of crime and accident victims can be obtained quickly while on-site.  This capability is valuable during mass-casualty events where numerous victims may require identification.
  • Laboratory Analysis: Rapid DNA systems can augment and streamline existing laboratory capabilities for routine DNA analysis.  Laboratory efficiency is increased, and staff are able to focus on more specialized tasks.

Limitations and Challenges

While suitable for routine DNA-based identification when high-quality samples are available, Rapid DNA, in its current form, cannot replace all forms of DNA profiling.  In particular, samples must be of sufficient quantity and quality, and samples containing multiple profiles often require further expert testing and analysis to fully interpret the results.

As a developing technology, Rapid DNA use also presents regulatory and governance challenges, although recent progress has been made.  The Rapid DNA Act of 2017 (Public Law 115-50), passed into law in August 2017, allows the FBI to proceed with development and testing of Rapid DNA processes, procedures and devices.  This testing is on-going, with a goal to collect and search for DNA profiles on-site during the booking process.

The FBI provides a detailed overview of its Rapid DNA initiatives on their website. 

Conclusion

Rapid DNA technology offers cost and efficiency benefits when used to perform routine DNA analysis of quality samples.  The simplicity of operation and self-contained nature of the equipment enables on-site DNA profiling by personnel with only minimal training.  Additionally, results are obtained far more quickly than with traditional laboratory processes, allowing law enforcement and public safety to react to developing situations with more information.

As technology improves and the regulatory environment evolves, the use of Rapid DNA profiling in law enforcement and public safety applications will increase.  Initial steps have been taken to develop guidance on Rapid DNA use, and the FBI generally supports the development of the technology. 

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