DNA TECHNOLOGY RENEWS SEARCH FOR MISSING PERSONS

February 1, 2003

Families looking sadly at faded photographs, wondering about the fate of their missing loved one.Detectives tracking down clues to years-old cases that began with a simple missing persons report. Medical examiners trying to put a name to the John Doe who has stayed on their minds since he first arrived in the morgue.These are just a few of the people who gain a new sense of hope from Texasâ?? Missing Persons DNA Database at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

Texas Leads the Way

Texas is the first state to participate in the federal database for missing persons, now that the health science centerâ??s DNA Identity Laboratory is part of the Federal Bureau of Investigationâ??s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).CODIS, a network of databases containing DNA samples, blends forensic science and computer technology into an effective tool for solving crime by allowing federal, state and local crime labs to electronically exchange and compare DNA profiles, helping to connect related crimes to each other and link them to convicted offenders.

The information in CODIS is maintained in separate databases with shared access privileges. Each database contains DNA samples from missing persons or their relatives and samples from unidentified remains that are collected at the local, state and federal levels. Samples are first compared with others in the Texas database. If no match is found, the samples are loaded into CODIS to expand the search nationally. The lab officially went online with CODIS in December. New York and California are establishing similar statewide missing persons DNA database systems and will soon participate in the national system, said John Planz, PhD, the labâ??s associate director.

Before joining CODIS, the health science center had to first become accredited as a forensic lab. Either the National Forensic Science Technology Center or the American Crime Laboratory Directors â?? Laboratory Accreditation Board must certify forensic labs before they can participate in CODIS.

The health science center became the first academic institution to earn NFSTC accreditation in September by proving its compliance with national quality assurance standards for forensic DNA testing laboratories, said Stephen Putthoff, DO, chair of pathology.

â??Every aspect of every test we run may now be judged by the legal system, not by our scientific peers,â? said Joe Warren, PhD, assistant director of the DNA Identity Lab. â??Attorneys, judges, and juries want to be reassured that they should believe the evidence that our work provides, and being accredited strengthens our credibility in the courtroom.â?

Fingerprints or dental records can be used to identify people in many circumstances, but when detectives have only skeletal remains or fragments of bone, they must rely on DNA testing. Mitochondrial DNA testing, such as that conducted at the health science center, can use the smallest fragments of materials like strands of hair, or samples in bad condition where cellular DNA is highly decomposed, Dr. Planz said.The health science centerâ??s lab is one of 17 facilities in North America capable of conducting mitochondrial DNA analysis, he said.

Usually, DNA profiles originate with a local agency, then flow to the state and national levels, but the DNA Identity Lab will bypass this tiered system and work directly with the national database maintained by the FBI because of the specific type of data it will submit, Dr. Planz said.â??We are the first non-federal lab eligible to contribute mitochondrial DNA test results directly into CODIS,â? Dr. Warren said. â??With this direct connection to the FBI, weâ??ll be able to submit samples and query the database ourselves.â?

Families Provide the Key

Besides solving crimes, CODIS has a separate component that focuses solely on DNA samples from unidentified human remains and missing persons. This part of CODIS will be an integral part of the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database at the health science centerâ??s DNA lab.

The 77th Texas Legislature designated the DNA Identity Lab as the home of its missing persons database in 2001 and provided $1 million from the Crime Victimsâ?? Compensation Fund to acquire the technology needed to establish the database.

The database makes it possible to identify missing people through the use of family reference samples, similar to the methods used to identify the victims of 2001â??s terrorist attacks, Dr. Planz said. Lab technicians will perform DNA analysis consistent with FBI methods, and the data will be uploaded into the federal database.These methods rely on the theory that all humans, except for identical twins, have unique sequences of DNA. Comparing these individual sequences to other samples is now the most advanced and accurate means to identify people or link family members. DNA testing can identify a person with better than 99 percent accuracy, Dr. Planz said.

In identity testing, samples of DNA are collected from a specimen of blood, saliva, bones, teeth, hair or other tissues. These samples provide a profile, or â??fingerprint,â? of the individual, he said. They can then be compared to other DNA profiles to establish an accurate identity. Dr. Planz said the most useful samples come from medical specimens, such as a bone marrow donor sample, blood sample or biopsy taken from recent medical tests or procedures. A DNA sample can also be taken from personal items such as a toothbrush or hairbrush, he said.

DNA from close relatives such as a biological parent or sibling can be useful, and in some instances a match may be obtained through sample indexing with the DNA of other relatives, such as half-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. In many if not most cases, reference samples from both parents and all or several siblings are necessary to improve the accuracy of the test, Dr. Planz said.

From Near and Far

The national network of databases also allows bodies to be identified even though the remains were found far from where people were reported missing.

â??Now that we have a direct link with the FBI, law enforcement agencies from around the country will have access to our records,â? Dr. Planz said. â??Without the national network of databases, a body may never be identified simply because it wasnâ??t found near its hometown. We hope that our efforts will help unsolved cases from Texas and the rest of the country to eventually be closed.â?

The DNA lab at the health science center started accepting samples from medical examinersâ?? offices and Texas law enforcement agencies Jan. 1.

Some of the first samples were submitted by the Harris County Medical Examinerâ??s Office. Staff there hope the database will help identify more than 70 skeletal remains from unknown individuals. Once their identity is known, their families can be notified and the remains can be released to the relatives.

The health science center is working closely with the Texas Department of Public Safety and its Missing Persons Clearinghouse to raise awareness of the database among law enforcement agencies. The clearinghouse serves as a liaison between law enforcement agencies and the public, assisting agencies with missing persons cases and families who have a missing loved one.

â??In Texas alone, 70,000 people are reported missing each year, and 90 percent of them are under 18,â? said Heidi Fischer, program specialist with the clearinghouse. â??Many of these cases are closed relatively quickly, but some remain open for years.â? The clearinghouse has about 450 active cases involving unidentified individuals in its files, she said. That number may not reflect additional cases that have not yet been entered into clearinghouse records by law enforcement agencies.

All Texas law enforcement agencies are required to enter identifying features of a person reported missing into the National Crime Information Center. When submitted, this initial report automatically becomes part of the clearinghouse records, too, she said. They are also required to enter information about any unidentified bodies into the NCIC and clearinghouse files.

Fischer said the DNA database at the health science center offers the clearinghouse a new avenue to solve these open cases that is beyond the scope of traditional identification efforts.

Cases involving missing children will receive top priority for analysis. The database 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. â??If we consider the pain and suffering the families of missing people are going through, even one body identified is worth the effort,â? said Joe Mathew, PhD, DNA technical advisor at the Harris County Medical Examinerâ??s Office.

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