McDNA: The DNA Testing Equivalent to Fast Food
by Ed Lyon
In the late 1960s, Dr. Leonard McCoy of the science fiction television series Star Trek could wave a small device over a patient to find out all he needed to know about them. A similar device now exists in this 21st-century science reality world that gives nearly instant DNA mapping results, and the operator does not have to be a doctor, scientist, or even a lab tech. Why, it’s so easy that even a cop can do it.
Thermo Fisher Scientific (formerly IntegenX) markets a machine about the size of a desktop computer called the Rapid DNA Machine (“RDM”). A swab containing a person’s spittle is inserted into a cartridge which is, in turn, inserted into the RDM. Detective Glenn Vandergrift of the Bensalem, Pennsylvania Police Department (“BPD”), the first police agency in the country to receive and begin routinely using an RDM, explains it “is the same exact science that’s being used in big labs. It’s just all miniaturized.” Prior to obtaining its RDM, the BPD already had one of the largest DNA databases outside of CODIS in the country for comparison and matching purposes. In 2017, President Trump signed legislation to allow RDM results access to the FBI’s national DNA database, CODIS.
Proponents touting the RDM’s benefits claim its results have provided credible leads in literally hundreds of cases to facilitate arrests and quickly exonerate falsely accused people. In Orange County, California, RDM team members claim that some robbers were so quickly identified using an RDM that they still had some of the goods they had stolen in their possession when police moved in to arrest them.
Under Big Brother’s 2017 rapid access law, the FBI has set infrastructures up for Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas to upload DNA mappings obtained from cheek swabs and processed by RDMs directly into CODIS for comparison purposes which, coincidentally, also expands the CODIS database if no match is found. Police will only be allowed this access for select crimes and only from individual persons and not from crime scene evidence.
Crime scene evidence is a different matter. Dr. Michael Coble of the University of North Texas explained that in the context of RDM use, processing a cheek swab from a person was akin to “reading the children’s book ‘Run Spot Run,’ whereas reading crime scene DNA was like ‘reading Shakespeare in Old English,’” citing as complicating factors the many DNA samples from crime scenes that have multiple persons’ DNA on them. Yet another problem is accidental and cross-contamination of DNA evidence gathered by crime scene technicians.
Minor details like this have not deterred investigators in Utah and Delaware from using their RDMs to review DNA swabbed from weapons, chewing gum, and cigarette butts from crime scenes to identify potential suspects. Leads generated from ROM results are, so far, used mainly in the investigative phase and not in courts. One reason for this is when the DNA sample processed by an RDM has been analyzed, the entire donation is destroyed. Secondary testing for double-checking or safety is impossible.
RDMs cost between $30,000 and $150,000 apiece. A single-use, smartphone-size cartridge costs between $100 and $150. Results from samples are available, from 60 to 90 minutes. Both in cost and time, RDMs are advantageous over a traditional lab where tests are expensive and results may not be returned for months to years, depending on backlogs.
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