New ultra-fast DNA machine not wired for SA

2010-10-17 13:00
Fadela Slamdien
A machine able to match a ­suspect’s DNA with crime scene samples within four hours has been developed by UK- and US-based scientists.

The machine, developed by Andrew Hopwood from the Forensic Science Service in the UK and Frederic Zenhausern from the University of Arizona, is able to compare crime scene samples to cells ­harvested from the inside of a ­suspect’s cheek.

However, this breakthrough technology may make little difference to the turnaround time for samples at South Africa’s two South African Police Service (SAPS) forensic science laboratories, which currently is 60 days, according to Colonel Luhein Frazenberg from the SAPS biology lab.
This week, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said South Africa’s forensic backlog has decreased by almost 20%, with the backlog in the biology unit, under which DNA analysis falls, decreasing by 33% due to a re-evaluation of skills, equipment and human resources.

But Vanessa Lynch, executive director­ of the DNA Project, said a number of obstacles prevented the successful and efficient prosecution­ of criminal cases.

These included a shortage of qualified forensic specialists, lack of DNA awareness at the crime scene, and inadequate and outdated legislation.

She said part of the problem was that usually the first people to arrive at a crime scene – including private security guards, emergency service personnel – were not qualified to collect DNA evidence and often contaminated or destroyed­ it.

The absence of a formal training path in forensic DNA analysis was another impediment.

The DNA Project has now developed a postgraduate honours course in forensic DNA analysis which it offers free of charge to all tertiary institutions willing to offer the course as part of their curriculum.

Karen Ehlers, lecturer in the ­genetics department at the University of the Free State which launched the honours course at the university this year, said the SAPS’s training programme, which trains BSc graduates, was not cost-effective at R450?000 per person.

“The SAPS have to spend a lot of time and money training the new personnel, only to lose some of them afterwards who realise that this is not the career for them,” she said.

The most pressing issue for the DNA Project is the introduction of new legislation that would create a Convicted Offender Index on the DNA database in South Africa.

The legislation would also allow police to collect DNA samples from everyone arrested for a suspected ­offence. South Africa has about 123?000 profiles on its current ­database. – West Cape News