An interview with Arthur J. Eisenberg, PhD, and Bruce Budowle, PhD, directors of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
What services does your program provide?
Dr. Eisenberg: We provide scientific and technical support to law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, and crime labs throughout the country. We help identify missing persons by analyzing DNA from human remains and comparing the results with reference samples provided by family members.
Our forensic analysts also routinely process DNA samples recovered from homicide crime scenes, and sexual assault and forensic paternity cases.
In addition to our work for crime labs, we also provide significant amounts of DNA services to other organizations, such as the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We have a terrific partnership with them.
CODIS 6.1-Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons (CODIS), also known as the National Missing Person DNA Database (NMPDD), is a database specifically designed to assemble data on missing persons and unidentified humans remains cases. This searchable database, drawn from the existing CODIS database and expanded by the FBI in 2000, includes information on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from unidentified remains, relatives of missing persons, and personal reference samples. The inclusion of both types of DNA profiles maximizes the potential for successful identification.
Why do other labs seek your services?
Dr. Eisenberg: Most of these agencies that use our services do not have the resources our laboratories can provide. For example, we are one of the few facilities in the nation capable of analyzing both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, and our Texas Missing Persons DNA Database, which was founded here at the University, was the first in the nation to participate in the FBI's CODIS+Mito database (see CODIS sidebar).
How great is the need for these services?
Dr. Budowle: The missing persons problem in our country is enormous-we call it a "mass disaster over time." People know about the unidentified and missing individuals from the World Trade Center, where 3,000 people died, and the tsunami that devastated South East Asia in 2004, but most people are not aware that on any given day, there are over 100,000 active missing persons cases in our country. That is a disaster worse than any other in our history, and it gets very little attention.
Beyond DNA analysis, are you involved in advancing the field of forensic DNA?
Dr. Eisenberg: Yes. We established a highly respected graduate program here at the University of North Texas Health Center to educate forensic analysts. We also do international training, and we've helped experts in other countries, such as Brazil, Chile, China, Dubai, and Spain on programs to identify missing persons, deter trafficking of children, and develop their own DNA databases. We have also served on the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methodology and the United States DNA Advisory Board, which recommends the National Standards that the director of the FBI implements throughout the country.
NamUs: National Missing and Unidentified Persons System of the U.S. (NamUs), is an information hub, a unique system of two working databases. One database (on missing persons) enables families of missing individuals to enter information about their missing loved ones. The other is a database of unidentified human remains records held by law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners. Both databases are available to the public and offer families with missing persons a way to connect online with information from coroners and medical examiners that might be able to help them establish what happened to their loved ones. For more information about the Center for Human Identification, visit www.unthumanid.org/index.cfm.
Why is your program important to victims?
Dr. Eisenberg: We use DNA technology to help identify human remains, find out what happened to people's loved ones, and help victims' families move toward closure. We've found that in a significant number of cases where human remains were found and the remains were analyzed by either a medical examiner or a forensic anthropologist, death was determined to have been the result of a homicide. When we can help identify the human remains, we can provide police with a critical piece of information to help start a murder investigation, and in a number of cases, the perpetrators of these crimes have been brought to justice. In 2004, the National Institute of Justice, under the President's DNA Initiative, awarded the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTSC) a grant to provide these services free of charge to agencies throughout the country.
Our staff at the UNT Center for Human Identification has worked closely with the National Institute of Justice in the formation of NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System of the U.S. Department of Justice (see NamUs sidebar).
In addition to the families of missing persons, what other victims benefit from your work?
Dr. Eisenberg: We've worked with international experts to use DNA to deter the trafficking of children for adoption. Children are being stolen, kidnapped from their parents and sold. By using DNA technology-the same used in forensics-countries can ensure that the persons who are offering a child for adoption are biologically related to that child.
In one pilot study in Mexico and Guatemala, 220 families came forward and provided reference samples to match with DNA samples from children in the process of being adopted. Ninety-three children were returned to their parents, based on DNA testing and meta-data. We are working on a program to share these technologies with other countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. We've partnered with the University of Granada in Spain on a program called DNA Pro Kids, an international program that uses DNA to help deter trafficking of children.
We also work to protect high-risk populations. For example, we collaborate with the unique Prostitute Diversion Initiative, a program started by a sergeant in the Dallas Police Department. The program uses counseling and education by many social service agencies to save the lives of women working in this high-risk occupation. These women are given the opportunity to provide a DNA reference samples. In the event that they go missing or become the victims of homicides, it will be possible to identify their remains.
What obstacles have you encountered?
Dr. Budowle: Resources are probably the most important obstacle. We would hate to see these programs fail because of lack of funding-because people don't see how important the missing persons problem is to our society.
Dr. Eisenberg: We need a guaranteed funding stream that we can rely on to continue offering our services free of charge, to expand our training, and to give families of missing persons the information they need to help find out what happened to their loved ones.
Law enforcement agencies have huge resource problems, too, that affect missing persons work, particularly for adults. Often when families report missing adults, these cases are often pushed to the "back burner," and quickly become cold cases, or police may not even take reports. A large part of the problem behind this issue is limited resources.
What have you learned from leading the program?
Dr. Eisenberg: We've learned the missing persons problem is huge-we can't emphasize that too strongly. Imagine how our nation would respond if 100,000 people were killed at once! Yet that is the number of people missing at any given time in our country, and we need greater awareness of the problem to build support to deal with it.
Victims' families wake up every day, year after year, not knowing where their loved ones are. They need to know how important it is for them to submit information about their loved ones to NamUs and provide reference samples of their own DNA that can be used to establish the identity of trafficked children or to identify the remains of murder victims, for example.
As we mentioned, one pilot study used reference samples from parents to find almost half of the children being sought. It shows how important it is for families to make sure their DNA is in databases like CODIS.
Also, we need to get this information out to the public, and one way to do that is through television. We know there is a negative "CSI effect" that makes people oversimplify the role of DNA in crime solving. But there is also a very positive "CSI effect," particularly when networks air public service announcements about missing persons or when scientific institutions present exhibits and tours about DNA forensic science. The more people get excited about this science and what it can do, the greater support we will have for our work.
Something else we've learned is how important it is to train law enforcement and other professionals whose work intersects with ours. When we can clear up common misconceptions about forensic DNA, it improves officers' approach to missing persons work.
If you had one message to share with victims and their families about your work, what would it be?
Dr. Eisenberg: Cases can be solved, information from families can help solve them, and there is reason to hope.
Arthur J. Eisenberg, PhD, professor and chairman of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics and Co-Director of the UNT Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, Texas, is a molecular biologist with 25 years' experience in the development of systems and methodologies for DNA identification testing. He has served as chairman of the United States DNA Advisory Board, director of the Texas Missing Persons Database, and a member of the U.S. Department of Justice Missing Persons Task Force and many other distinguished panels.
Bruce Budowle, PhD, executive director of the Institute of Investigative Genetics, Professor and vice-chair of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics, University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, Texas, is a geneticist and expert in forensic DNA typing for human identity testing and microbial forensics. Formerly the senior scientist for the FBI's Laboratory Division, he was an advisor to authorities in identifying the victims of the World Trade Center.