Francis Chiafari, director of the Baltimore City crime lab,… (Amy Davis / Sun Photographer )
The Baltimore Police Department is taking part in a program to develop and test new technology that could significantly cut DNA analysis time.
The National Institute of Justice is putting $1 million toward the project. Police will partner with researchers from Yale University and a North Carolina-based company to develop technology that would enable crime lab workers to identify and test smaller samples in a much shorter time.
The technology is at least a year away from being usable and won't be implemented for cases during the pilot phase, but officials hope it will be cleared for use if successful.
"The problem being solved here is that DNA sequencing, which is the gold standard for crime forensics, is expensive and takes a long time," said Richard West, CEO of Advanced Liquid Logic, which developed the technology.
"Timewise and moneywise, they can only afford to test a small portion of [DNA samples]," he added. "This device will … indicate to the crime lab technicians which samples are worthy and which are not worthy of further analysis."
Crime lab director Francis Chiafari, a co-developer of the project, said that with the device, 300 possible samples collected at a crime scene can be more quickly distilled into categories, such as blood or sweat. Technicians can determine which samples have multiple profiles, which are nonhuman, or which are male or female, West said.
They would then use representative samples from the categories to learn more. A process that takes more than 24 hours could be condensed into one hour, using samples that are only "one-hundredth of a raindrop," West said.
The technology uses "microfluidics," which one expert said is an emerging area of research. Mitchell Holland, director of the forensic science program at Pennsylvania State University, said such devices have been produced in the past year in academia and the private sector, as well as in Britain.
"I don't know of any [police] lab in the USA that is using microfluidics," Holland said. "It could be that the Baltimore crime lab is one of the first in the country to implement this."
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III called the study a milestone in the convergence of science and law enforcement.
"If successful, this would not only change the current policing landscape but would allow law enforcement agencies to build stronger cases for prosecution by increasing the amount of probative scientific evidence in criminal investigations," Bealefeld said in a statement.
One drawback is that the technology focuses on a type of DNA testing that is not compatible with the FBI's Combined DNA Indexing System database, which is used by law enforcement agencies to compare DNA samples to profiles collected by police nationwide.
But experts said technicians could move forward with such comparisons after screening results.
West said his company developed the technology for homeland security and clinical diagnostic projects, and approached Chiafari about finding a use in forensic sciences.
Standing in a crime lab room overlooking City Hall, Chiafari, who took over the crime lab in 2009 after years in the private sector, described some of the large machines used by technicians as "elephants that we could be displacing with this new technology."
The testing won't affect or involve current cases and will use nonevidentiary samples or a small quantity from closed cases to test the technology. West and Chiafari said the technology could eventually be developed for use in the field.