8 Dec 2008


DNA sequencer

Most commonly associated with renewable energy and genetically modified produce, biotechnology is also having a profound effect on society and, in particular, the justice system with the advent of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) profiling, which helps local forensic investigators solve criminal cases.

DNA profiling is a molecular testing method used to identify people or organisms by the particular structure of their DNA, which is determined to be unique to each person—like a fingerprint—and can be extracted from saliva, blood, hair and even finger- or toenails.

And while DNA testing for this purpose is “relatively” new in the country, according to Major Lito Cabamongan, one of the leading crime-scene specialists with the Philippine National Police (PNP), local enforcement agencies have already begun reaping the benefits.

“Almost 30 percent or more of [criminal] cases are being solved [now with the help of DNA profiling techniques],” the forensic investigator said partly in Filipino. He added that it was more difficult in previous times without DNA testing, as other forms of evidence were inconclusive.

He spoke to the BusinessMirror in last week’s DNA forensic training workshop for police officers that was part of the National Biotechnology Week activities.

But working behind the scenes is the DNA Analysis Laboratory in the Natural Sciences Research Institute at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Dr. Maria de Ungria, who heads the UP DNA Laboratory, said DNA is one of the most powerful tools available to Philippine investigators today.

“You’ll know who was and wasn’t there,” she said, referring to a crime. “It brings us closer to the truth, and serves as a crucial factor to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the crime.”

She noted, however, that the UP DNA lab does not directly handle criminal cases, unless passed on to them by the PNP or by the courts, and instead focuses on the research aspect of forensic investigation.

“They [PNP and National Bureau of Investigation] have their own labs, but because of the scale of criminal cases that they have, they can’t do research,” said the former Philippine Science High School scholar.

She said their research activities take a “lot of time,” such as testing different types of evidence using several parameters, like variations in temperature, among others. Such research endeavors, she said, fall under their responsibility, being attached to an academic institution.

“We don’t go into crime scenes and we don’t handle the [actual] evidence, but if one of the [law enforcement] agencies feel they have not handled that type of evidence, they might call our lab for assistance,” she said.

Dr. de Ungria added that the UP DNA lab may step in during special cases, such as those requested by families seeking an independent forensic investigation.

In October 2007, the Supreme Court issued the Rule on DNA Evidence, which provided the guidelines on assessing the value of DNA evidence in court. It was also viewed as a precedent for reversing convictions through post-DNA testing.

Dr. de Ungria said activities intensified after the Supreme Court decision. She said the cases passed to the UP DNA lab have doubled, and they have even noted some acquittals after doing DNA testing.

She said that among rape cases in the past nine years, there have been five acquittals because it was discovered that the suspects did not share the DNA profile of the victims’ children born as a result of the crime. She said the suspected rapists spent an average of seven years in jail.

She noted that the lab is helping the government, as well, declogging jails and also preventing future abuses to human rights.

“The real perpetrators are still outside doing what they were doing before,” she said.

Budget constraints

Still, as a DNA analysis lab, carrying out research studies and bringing criminals to justice carries a hefty price tag. Dr. de Ungria said that in the past two years, they have received some P5 million a year, but it was not enough. She said equipment alone could cost several millions of pesos.

“We should be looking at P10 million, P20 million to P30 million a year,” she admitted, adding that the funds will be used to buy better equipment, making it a one-time arrangement.

She said the lab, for instance, would be an updated version of their DNA sequencer, which can only run one sample at a time, versus other newer machines which can do eight or even 15 samples.

She added that running a sample takes at least 30 minutes, which is why the lab is planning to purchase a DNA sequencer that costs P10 million that can handle eight samples.

A DNA sequencer automates the arduous task of DNA sequencing, a process where the order of nucleotides—the structural unit of DNA—is determined. DNA sequencing is credited with large advances in biological research and is an integral aspect of forensic investigation.

“We would like to have results as soon as possible. The longer we wait [for DNA results], the longer the time that person [if innocent] is incarcerated,” she said.

She added that the small number of staff is also another issue with them, because while they have at least 10 scientists manning the labs, only three are considered as permanent while the rest are classified as “contractual.”

“We look for budgets for scientists, which actually adds to the work that we are doing,” she said.

The DNA business

One way is to tap the private sector. The UP DNA lab, for instance, charges fees for paternity tests which, according to Dr. de Ungria, composes up to 50 percent of the lab’s activities today.

The lab charges P60,000 for a paternity test—which is used as evidence in court, such as in proving the legitimacy of an heir. If the test is for “private reasons,” where it will not be used in any legal forum, the fee is P40,000. The reason for this, she said, is that court cases require more scrutiny, hence, a more laborious task for the laboratory.

She also noted cases where “high-profile clients” or wealthy individuals ask the lab to have their DNA profiled and then stored. This is for possible use in the future, when, for instance, the subject is cremated or when facing other legal hurdles.

For this, the UP DNA lab charges P3,000 for five years of storage, after which the contract expires and the clients will be charged again.

For all the extra work, Dr. de Ungria, who finished her doctoral degree at the University of New South Wales in Australia, does no regret coming back to the Philippines—after 10 years abroad.

“Science should serve society. I needed to go back to the Philippines [because] I knew that I only had the opportunity to study because of taxpayers’ money,” she said.


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