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The advances in DNA and other tools over the last 15 years have made for some juggling for forensic labs.
Tests, and the data they produce, grew more plentiful and powerful. But as the amount of information grew, so too did the patchwork of software programs to catalogue it all. Many require manual data input, which added a degree of human error into the mix.
But now ThermoFisher Scientific says they have a 21st-century tool that can bring any laboratory up to speed: the Converge program, which streamlines and standardizes forensic operations within one platform.
“All this case data management and analysis, they’re actually very daunting tasks – and they require numerous steps, and complex decision making,” Ravi Gupta, the company’s director of product management of human identification, told Forensic Magazine. “That happens manually right now in most of the cases. And because it’s a multi-step process, they have these different systems that don’t necessarily interact with one another.”
The old way of doing things can be error-prone and time-consuming, experts say.
Converge, on the other hand, automatically incorporates a wide variety of programs, including those not made by ThermoFisher.
“Think of it as an iPhone – and on that iPhone, that platform, you can develop multiple applications that can help you streamline the different apps within the crime lab,” said Gupta.
The platform is built around the coming advent of next-generation sequencing, and the more-pressing updated DNA guidelines expected by the FBI starting in January 2017, the company added. The platform will also be able to easily incorporate improvements of existing technology, like developments in DNA-mixture analysis.
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Included within the software are “apps” for case management, and for kinship analysis and paternity, according to the company.
Bruce Budowle, executive director of the Institute of Applied Genetics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, worked DNA for 25 years within the FBI’s Laboratory Division. He told Forensic Magazine that the last 15 years have seen great advances in the technology – but the management of all the new tools was never integrated in one place.
Oftentimes, analysts have put together makeshift Excel workbooks to put all their scientific findings together.
Converge was tested in a UNT lab, and he said the early results indicated it could dramatically improve the process in forensic labs nationwide.
“When you pull things together, you assume they work well, but they may not,” said Budowle. “Some of the things we do are challenging.”
For example, a missing-persons case might not be as easy as a simple paternity test – it might require a joint-probability, complex-pedigree analysis.
“Bringing software in to ensure proper interpretation of these complex or missing-data pedigrees to help identify individuals is critical,” he said. “This is finally bringing all the tools and the information together so anyone can understand what’s happening.
“I have been waiting a long time for a software solution that integrates data management, analysis and interpretation,” Budowle added, calling Converge a “boon to our field.”
Thermo Fisher began working on the Converge concept several years ago – and it was in direct response to consistent concerns reported by customers. Bringing everything together, and allowing less room for analyst error, seemed to be a universal concern, said Gupta.
But at the same time, seemingly every laboratory wanted flexibility. After years of research and development, the company believes they have gotten it right, in time for the global launch of the software last week.
“We realize each lab has a slightly different way of doing things – and therefore, from the get-go, we put it in a lot of effort in building this platform so that it’s very configurable and customizable,” Gupta said. “The community has been looking for a tool like this for many, many years.”
The license for the program varies, but starts at $5,000 per year for a single user – and packages for multiple users and additional years also exists.