Federal researchers say they've developed a human identification test that's faster and possibly cheaper than DNA testing.
It would be a handy new weapon in the arsenal for detectives, forensic experts and the military, though no one expects it to replace DNA analysis — and its promoters say it is not intended to.
The new method analyzes antibodies. Each person has a unique antibody bar code that can be gleaned from blood, saliva or other bodily fluids. Antibodies are proteins used by the body to fend off viruses or perform routine physiological housekeeping.
"DNA is a physical code that describes you ... and in many ways so are your antibodies," said Dr. Vicki Thompson, a chemical engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory who's been working with other researchers to perfect the test for the past 10 years.
The scientists say an antibody profile can yield results faster and more cheaply and be performed in the field with minimal training. National lab administrators have licensed the technology exclusively to Identity Sciences LLC in Alpharetta, Ga.
The Georgia startup plans to begin rolling out test kits and training to law enforcement, the military and forensic and medical labs around the globe by fall of 2009. Ken Haas, vice president of marketing, says the test is not intended to supplant DNA testing, the recognized gold standard in human identification.
But Haas says the value of antibody profiling is as a screening tool to help make sense of a crime scene, sort out the blood trails or spatter from multiple victims or more quickly identify body parts on a battlefield or at the scene of a disaster like the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
It may also reduce the number of DNA tests required in an investigation, potentially saving time and money and easing the growing backlog, he said. Results from tests on blood serum or dried blood can be ready in two hours, a fraction of the time it takes to run similar tests for DNA matches.
However, a major drawback for now is the lack of a national antibody database. That's one of the reasons antibody testing is not likely to be used at the outset of an investigation to link suspects to crimes or establish probable cause to justify issuing an arrest warrant.
'A lot of potential'
Company officials say beta testing by forensic scientists at simulated crime scenes at seven locations across the country has produced positive results and reinforced the notion that an eager market awaits. The company declined to say where the testing occurred, citing nondisclosure agreements with participants.
The company has not yet put a price tag on the field kits. But executives say their product will be significantly cheaper than DNA analysis, which can run anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per sample because it requires sophisticated equipment and lab time.
"We don't see this yet as a product to take to court," said Gene Venesky, vice president of Identity Sciences. "But we do see this as a way to get the case moving forward toward a final, legal resolution."
Still, some forensics experts say that kind of scrutiny may be unavoidable, especially if the test takes on a bigger crime-fighting role.
"There is a lot of potential here," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a DNA expert and chairman of the Department of Forensic Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Any time you can develop a quick and easy screen for something ... that is a good thing."
But Kobilinsky and others caution that it takes time for any new forensic test to gain acceptance where it matters most — state and federal courthouses. If the new tests begin appearing in police reports, defense attorneys can be expected to challenge their validity.
"If these tests are going to get to the courtroom, which I think is inevitable, they are not going to be admissible as evidence until they can be proven reliable, accurate" and trustworthy, Kobilinsky said. "My bet is that a crime scene unit is going to be very careful about using this if it's not going to be of any benefit in litigation."