Tuning in to antibodies

Aug. 1, 2008
Even identical twins have unique autoantibody profiles; the same cannot be said for DNA. How might this affect the future of forensics?

     In the history of law enforcement, many methods have been used to determine a person's identity. Fingerprinting is probably the oldest and most common method of identification, and history tells us that so-called "camera eyes," or law enforcement officers with exceptional memories, were once used to identify previously arrested offenders by sight. Photography lessened the burden on memory, but was not the answer to the criminal identification problem, as people change physically over time.

     When DNA was first used to make a conviction in the 1980s, it was hailed as vital and accurate scientific evidence for lawyers and is now widely used in courtrooms. But as accurate as DNA is, some claim it also can be pricey and time-consuming — depending on the circumstances.

     So what's next in line? Federal researchers are currently developing a system of identification to be used in conjunction with, and as a screening tool for, DNA. This new method works by detecting autoantibodies present in blood and other bodily fluids. Each person has a unique antibody barcode that can be gleaned from the blood and other bodily fluids, and developers say autoantibody testing, or AbP ID, will be an accurate and cost-effective process that's simple to perform.

     The technology is said to incorporate an uncomplicated testing system and innovative pattern-recognition software to expedite identifications. Because of this, it is hoped that a greater number of agencies can use it to help them make more identifications in a shorter period of time.

Finally — a counter to the 'evil twin defense'

     The science behind antibody testing was based on a discovery by scientist Ann-Michele Francoeur in the late 1980s. While Francoeur was doing research on autoimmune diseases, she was using control samples from people without autoimmune diseases and found that these people also had an array of autoantibodies present in their blood serum samples. More interestingly, she found that everybody houses such antibodies, and furthermore, each person's autoantibody profile was unique to that individual.

     These aren't the kind of antibodies that you would expect to fight off a virus if you get it cold. Instead, they are antibodies directed against your own body — specifically your tissues, organs and cells.

     "It's thought that [these antibodies] have a housekeeping role for cleaning up dead and diseased cells," says Dr. Vicki Thompson, principal investigator at Idaho National Laboratory. "When you cut yourself, your body repairs the cut, but cellular debris remains which the body must get rid of. These autoantibodies target that debris and then flush them out of your system," she says. "But, because they are targeted against your cells, that makes them unique to you."

     Even identical twins who have the same DNA will have their own unique autoantibody profile. Thompson notes that in talking to some forensic labs across the country, a case occasionally comes up where someone will use the evil twin defense. Now there's a way to circumvent that — something which even DNA cannot do.

Making easy work of forensic hurdles

     According to Identity Sciences CEO Gene Venesky, the company believes that "AbP ID has the potential of changing the science of forensics by becoming a relevant compliment to DNA testing as well as an aid to forensic experts."

     Identity Sciences also claims the tests are fast, inexpensive and efficient — all characteristics which can make or break an investigation. Compared with DNA tests, which can run up to and more than $1,000, and results can take weeks or months to come back, users can get AbP ID blood sample results in about 2 hours at a much smaller cost.

     And they are so easy, a fifth-grader can do it — literally. Thompson routinely has fifth- and sixth-graders do the test with no problems whatsoever. She says that neither a lot of training nor specialized equipment is required.

     Furthermore, developers herald the testing process as accommodating. Ken Haas, principal director of marketing for Identity Sciences LLC in Alpharetta, Georgia, confirms that even if agencies had none of the equipment necessary to perform tests (though most of them do), it would "cost less than $1,000 to put an AbP ID testing lab together," and would take up approximately 9 square feet of space. (Idaho National Laboratory has granted Identity Sciences exclusive licensing of the technology.)

     Haas also believes this could help agencies prosecute crimes they perhaps could not have afforded to in the past, such as gang-related offenses and auto-theft cases.

     Given the evidence, the test can potentially allow law enforcement to prosecute more crimes quicker, and for less money. As an added bonus, it may also allow agencies to use DNA better. "The market is hungry for a DNA screening tool," asserts Haas. He also believes it can potentially "help reduce the backlog with DNA, which is a huge benefit. You've got almost a million crimes in backlog DNA testing … anything you can do to reduce that number is going to help."

     But before it can shoulder the load of forensic labor, AbP ID must first prove itself in the field — and then successfully go public.

'Will it pass muster?'

     DNA technical leader and forensic expert with Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Lab, Ken Pfoser, says that any type of testing they deal with, new or old, has to go through certain levels of scrutiny and has to be generally accepted in the forensic community. Finally, they look at how it will be accepted in court. Scientists will run procedures through validation tests to see not only if it works, but also to see if it applies to the type of work they do. In this case, cost is usually a secondary concern. Results are No. 1.

     "Many times, certain technologies work great in the scientific field, but the forensic field might have issues like feasibility or consumes too much sample … or just doesn't give you the results that you'd hoped for," says Pfoser. "If you have the same sample and you run that test on the sample 20, 30, 100 times, [it needs to show] that you're going to get the same result every time. It also involves sensitivity; we want to try and limit how much sample that we consume that's collected from the crime scene."

     One significant advantage of AbP ID is that it requires only a small amount of evidence to get an accurate read — and Thompson adds that Idaho National Laboratory is constantly working to improve sensitivity even more. "Right now we can analyze what we call a micro liter of blood. If you can imagine pricking yourself in the finger and squeezing out a drop of blood, a micro liter would be one-fiftieth of that drop."

     She says that they would obviously like to go lower than that, as there are times when only a small amount of blood is present at a scene. (At this time, lab trials for blood are finished, and semen and saliva are almost complete. Testing for perspiration is in the works.)

     Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, DNA expert and chairman of the Department of Forensic Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, agrees that the real issue behind forensic validation has to do with taking a sample and exposing it to all sorts of conditions, and then checking to see whether the test comes back with reliable results. AbP ID trials were set up to represent various crime scenes. In each scenario, blood samples were taken from a number of fabrics and were exposed to a number of conditions. Testers even used varieties of nonhuman blood to see if AbP ID kits could make the distinction (it could).

     "It doesn't matter whether it's serum, whole blood or a stain," says Haas. "With blood evidence, you get results in 2 hours. The test works with blood stains on denim (a material that's notable for inhibiting the reaction that amplifies DNA required for the DNA analysis), as well as blood that has been sprayed with Luminol."

     Researchers also contaminated some samples with the likes of Clorox. On each fabric they've tested, and despite multiple contamination attempts, Haas claims they have yet to find a fabric on which AbP ID testing will not render an accurate result.

     Kobilinsky feels that AbP ID "sounds potentially very exciting," but states "the question has to do with, is it going to pass muster? Are people going to publish it, and is the community going to jump on top of it? I think there's a lot of potential here, and they will."

     In fact, Kobilinsky does not foresee any legal issues with the testing until the first time it's brought to court. Then, he says, it must pass through admissibility standards that will likely vary by state and jurisdiction.

     Once the process is deemed admissible in one jurisdiction, it goes to trials and then the appellate level. "And then it will finally be accepted throughout a particular state," says Kobilinsky. "So there is both a scientific and legal process to go through."

Building a database with confidence

     A few questions remain with autoantibody technology. Foremost is the lack of a national antibody database. With existing fingerprint and ballistics databases, users can look at an item of evidence, search the database and see if they get a hit. This helps link serial crimes or crimes that are occurring in different jurisdictions. Right now with antibodies, a database is something for the future. "You can't start off with a technique and expect to have a database overnight," says Kobilinsky. "You also have to have standardization in any lab that adopts it."

     To get the ball rolling, Identity Sciences currently has an antibody database and project called Image ID — digital imaging software that houses the results of the AbP ID tests and compares tests to one another, or to another database of AbP ID tests. The database, of course, will take time to build. After all, DNA databases continue to be populated to this day.

     Thompson sees the database starting on the local level, where a forensic lab will begin to populate it with its case work until other local databases eventually merge to form a national database.

     Others question whether a person's antibody profiles will change as they age.

     Thompson explains that in some sense [antibody profiles] don't stay the same for the first couple years of life. "When a baby's born, its antibody profile is identical to its mother's," Thompson says. "However, by the time the baby's about 2 years old, they've developed their own profile. At that point, it doesn't change anymore; it stays the same for life and it is not affected by environmental exposures or by diseases."

     Plans to roll out test kits and training to law enforcement, the military and forensic and medical labs around the globe are slated to begin as soon as 2009. Once word gets out and more people look into this offering, it is up to individual agencies and labs to help it forward.

'Forensics has become big business'

     Provided it is deemed reliable and is properly validated, Kobilinsky feels antibody testing will catch on. He adds that "Forensics has become big business now, so when one lab adopts it and demonstrates that it's useful in either supplementing DNA or doing something DNA can't do, people are going to look at it, and little by little it's going to spread."

     Crime labs will likely be the first agencies to pick up the technology. But researchers anticipate commercial labs and smaller agencies getting involved as well.

     A number of beta sites and forensic labs across the country (all of which have entered a confidentiality agreement with Identity Sciences) are currently testing the product. These agencies represent a cross-section of jurisdictions within the United States, and consist of large cities, small towns and varied geographical locations. "The question most-asked was, 'When can we have it/When can we buy it?'" says Thompson.

     Regardless of who is first to pick up the unique system of blood barcoding, hopes are high.

     To the Department of Defense, AbP ID could mean helping put body parts back together, faster. It can be used as a tool in crisis mitigation. If people are registered in a database, deceased persons can be identified quickly using AbP ID.

     As Haas puts it, "People in law enforcement generally want to solve crime. They really do. And they want a good screening tool for DNA. But the other side of it is that it's a good product; it's good for humanity."

About the Author

Sara Scullin

Sara Scullin was the Editor of Law Enforcement Technology magazine, a monthly business-to-business publication that covers technology trends and best practices for public safety managers. LET is part of SouthComm Law Enforcement Media, which also publishes Law Enforcement Product News and Officer.com. Sara had covered the law enforcement industry since March 2008.

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