FITCHBURG (WKOW) — Scientists at a Dane County-based company have developed a new technology that has the potential to change DNA analysis worldwide. It’s Promega’s Spectrum CE system.
The instrument performs capillary electrophoresis (CE), a technique that allows forensic analysts to process DNA samples and determine whether they can be identified to a person.
CE is nothing new, but those at Promega who helped develop the Spectrum CE system say their product expands what’s possible.
“We’re pushing CE’s innovation. We’re pushing its capabilities,” said Lisa Misner. Misner is Promega’s Genetic Identity Technical Support and Training Development Manager.
“This is the first CE tool designed with a forensic scientist in mind,” he said. “We’re talking crime labs, sheriff’s department labs, stuff like that.”
At present, existing CE technology allows scientists to analyze 6 components simultaneously. Spectrum CE increases it to 8.
While the change may seem small, Misner said it can make a big difference, particularly when analysts are trying to process degraded DNA samples.
“It could be a cold case, missing persons, any sample that has been left exposed to the elements where the DNA could degrade over time, these are some of the toughest samples a forensic lab can encounter,” Misner said.
When scientists go to process degraded samples, they’re rarely able to identify all the markers they’d like to make a DNA match, according to Sara Huston Katsanis, research assistant professor at Northwestern University.
“You can’t add DNA back. If it’s broken, it’s broken, but anything we can do to take what’s broken and try to amplify it and visualize it is invaluable,” he said. “So any technique we have to enhance the ability to analyze whatever fragment there is is valuable for all kinds of forensic applications.”
Katsanis said there is evidence that Spectrum CE provides a slight improvement in analyzing degraded DNA samples.
“This is extremely valuable, even if it only helps one case,” he said. “I mean, one case is another case solved.”
Katsanis said that while the advances made by Spectrum CE appear to be a small step forward rather than a game-changing change, there is a wide range of potential applications.
In addition to helping law enforcement solve cold cases, he said better CE technology could give scientists more opportunities to identify people who die in mass disasters like wildfires.
“It’s really important to be able to identify and understand who dies in these cases so that we can bring justice and close the families as well,” Katsanis said.
Misner has been working to help develop the Spectrum CE system for nearly a decade. During that trial, he said he drew on his past experience as a forensic analyst.
“I was able to put myself back into my analyst shoes, back into my clients shoes and try to think about what I would want if I went back to the lab again,” she said.
This led to the other improvement that Spectrum CE brings, which impacts scientists’ workflow.
Misner said that, right now, forensic analysts place their samples directly on the field where the analysis takes place, and most CE tools contain only two sample plates.
“Once you start your ride, there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “You have to allow that rush to stop before you can add any more dishes.”
Misner said this means scientists can sometimes spend a good deal of time worrying about programming or waiting for a run to finish before they can start their own analysis.
In an effort to change this, Promega developers have added a simple feature to the Spectrum CE: a drawer.
The new instrument can hold up to four sample plates at a time. When it finishes analyzing one plate, it automatically switches to the second and scientists can replace the finished plate with a new one.
“It’s not something we want [analysts] to think about,” Misner said. “We don’t want this to be a roadblock in their workflow. We want to provide them with something that makes their day a little smoother and faster.”