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28 April 15

Paul Hackett, Group Managing Director of Key Forensic Services, responds to recent media criticism of rapid DNA technology

“Unease over police trial of hi-tech DNA machines amid fears that civil liberties could be infringed.”

A headline like this makes me think we are back in the medieval times. So how about some facts?

The ‘hi-tech DNA machine’ referred to is ‘RapidHIT® , it is an amazing invention. It is unique and something I didn’t expect to be invented in my lifetime. It is a device about the size of a large desktop printer that can do on its own in just 2 hours what a lab full of very expensive equipment and a lot of very clever people do in anywhere between 12 and 24 hours, that is produce a DNA profile that meets the very strict quality standards we have in the UK and is also compatible with our National DNA Database.

This is truly revolutionary and represents a paradigm shift in DNA profiling terms.

The RapidHIT® is currently being trailed by 2 UK police forces in collaboration with Key Forensic Services (KFS). The trials are aimed at testing the operating models as well as understanding the benefits that producing DNA results in 2 hours can bring to a range of law enforcement challenges. The trials are also highlighting some of the changes that will be needed to working practices across the whole criminal justice system in England and Wales to successfully implement and maximize the benefits of this exciting new technology if it is to become the way DNA testing is done routinely in the future.

At the moment the RapidHIT®  is capable of producing DNA profiles from a range of typically encountered forensic samples such as blood stains, cigarette butts, semen stains and mouth swabs taken from arrestees. However, it is not a “black box” and the DNA profiles produced still require examination and interpretation by a competent expert. This is how the two trials mentioned above are working.

The operating model being trialed involves the RapidHIT® being placed in a police laboratory rather than a KFS lab. Trained police scientists select samples collected from scenes of crime based on agreed criteria, load these samples into the RapidHIT® and initiate the “run” or profiling process. Two hours later once the RapidHIT® has done the profiling, the resultant data is transferred securely to KFS for expert interpretation

KFS scientists assess and interpret the profiles in the same way they do profiles produced by the traditional, fully accredited lab based analysis. Even then we cannot add profiles from the RapidHIT® to the National DNA Database® (NDNAD)  as the RapidHIT® and associated processes are not yet accredited. So KFS carries out a one-off search against the NDNAD on behalf of the force to see if any matches are generated.

This whole process is completed inside 5 hours and that is a massive reduction in the end to end process time when compared to the current way of doing things.

In addition, a condition of the trial is that any sample selected for the RapidHIT®  must be of sufficient size and quality to allow part of the same sample  to also be tested by KFS, using the accredited laboratory based method to check concordance and ensure a DNA profile from the incident is also permanently added to the NDNAD.

As a member of the public, I am much more interested in the ability of our police officers to catch murderers and rapists not within days or weeks, but within hours of committing an offence. I am much more interested in the potential of the RapidHIT®  to check that someone arrested is not wanted for an outstanding crime whilst in custody, rather than after they have been released. Imagine if any person arrested for an offence could have their identity checked and have their DNA profile checked against the NDNAD before they are released. There would no longer be a need to bail a person whilst the arresting officers wait for the lab to tell them the person they had in custody a few days ago was actually wanted for a serious crime. No longer the potential for that person once they have been released on bail, to abscond and even leave the country!

Rapid DNA is here. The genie is out of the bottle so to speak, so there is no going back. As a forward thinking society we should embrace the positive potential and  benefits of this technology whilst recognizing that we need to adapt the existing quality standards to enable its use safely,  securely and successfully…..something that as the inventors of DNA profiling we have a exemplary track record of doing so.

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