Every now and then it seems that there are markers in the historical timeline of our continuing efforts to drive the utilization of DNA technology toward its ultimate capacity to solve and ultimately prevent crime. One of those markers is the fact that, while still in its infancy, the quickly emerging “Rapid DNA Testing” community has developed to the extent that it is in need of its own “organization” or “trade association” if you will. Established to promote the development of standards, provide public awareness and education, and advocate for judicial, legislative, and policy acceptance of rapid DNA testing, the Global Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing is a sign of how far the broader scientific DNA community has come.
Ten years ago, Sarah Hart, then Director of the National Institute of Justice, testified before the Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs for the U.S. Senate and provided a vision of the future. She said, “The forensic DNA research and development program is focused on innovations to make DNA faster, more sensitive (in order to more uniquely identify the source of evidence from very small samples), and less costly. One project, currently in the prototype stage and ready to be evaluated by crime lab practitioners, is a DNA chip being developed at MIT's Whitehead Institute. Using exactly the same analytical methods in use today, the Whitehead Chip permits significant miniaturization over today's instruments, allowing analyses to be speeded up from hours to minutes, alleviating overcrowding in already severely constrained public laboratory space, and leading to portability in the future.” Several years prior to that, there was even a cover story in Popular Science magazine touting the emergence and virtues of “lab on a chip.” (To be clear, while I have never shied away from participation in published articles, I wasn’t convinced Popular Science was where we wanted to be having these discussions. You didn’t find me adding my opinion in that article.)
But from those original visions of a smaller, faster, more portable approach to DNA analysis, in appropriate situations and contexts, a number of new players have been brought into the forensic DNA community. Entirely new companies have been created. Players in other forensic fields have decided that DNA analysis should now be part of their portfolio. Industry leaders have tacked their sails to accommodate the changing dynamics that rapid DNA analysis will bring. Software companies see potential markets where none existed before. Consumables makers see new opportunities beyond chemistries to component parts like cartridges. Service laboratories, public and private will have to figure out what this new dynamic will mean and how to best integrate the new technologies into their systems and business models. Even policy wonks like yours truly have new things to think, write, and sometimes argue about. Full Disclosure: the author has been appointed Executive Director of the Alliance.
As a community, those who have defined their mission as maximizing the potential of DNA technology have driven the integration of DNA into criminal justice systems around the world with a steady and always scientifically-based hand. Regardless of the commercial opportunities or law enforcement’s enthusiasm, scientists have ensured that DNA testing—so critical to identifying criminals and preventing future crimes—has moved steadily forward, absent the dreaded two steps back. The vision for the Alliance is that that steady, community-based approach will continue to ensure that DNA analysis, even in this new context of “rapid” testing will remain the gold standard for forensic science.
Chris Asplen is President of Asplen and Associates, LLC. He consults with local, state, federal, and international governments on the use of forensic DNA technology. He can be reached at email@example.com.