Local Researcher Awarded $2.5 Million for DNA Research

The grant will support research to make analyzing DNA samples at crime scenes more accurate.

When watching CSI or a similar show on television, it seems like analyzing DNA samples is easy. First, the evidence is collected and shipped off to a lab. Then, two or three commercial breaks later, the sample is magically presented and makes or breaks the case.

Piece of cake, right? Not so fast, according to reps from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). In fact, they say that the science community has been “embroiled in a debate for many years about how to analyze samples that may be obscured by DNA from people other than the subject.” Meaning, when a sample has DNA from multiple people, it makes things really difficult.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Defense has awarded Catherine Grgicak, PhD, an assistant professor in biomedical forensic sciences at BUSM, approximately $2.5 million. The grant will be used to fund research in order to more accurately analyze DNA evidence at crime scenes.

Grgicak, along with a team of researchers from Rutgers University-Camden and MIT, are working on ways to help “complex DNA mixture interpretation,” which includes, according to a report released by BUSM, “identifying the number of possible contributors in an evidence sample and determining the strength of a DNA match.”

“Through statistical analysis of data, we are hoping to examine the degree of accuracy and reliability of methods used by forensic scientists in order to achieve a more complete understanding of the basis for interpretation,” Grgicak explains, adding that developing these solutions will benefit the forensic DNA field and improve the way forensic data is interpreted from physical evidence.

In the report, BUSM reps say that the research that comes out of this grant has the potential to be used in crime labs in many countries throughout the world:

Grgicak and her colleagues already have developed a computational tool to identify the number of contributors to a forensic DNA sample called NOCIt. According to Grgicak, this enhanced approach to DNA mixture interpretation applies statistical and computational techniques that can accurately assess complex, noisy evidence samples involving many contributors and could gradually become incorporated into standard practice in crime labs all around the world.