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COVER: Tsunami Investigators Tap Gene Codes Database

By Melissa Kruse

April 15, 2005 | The final photographs in a digital camera, spotted by a missionary on a beach in Khao Lak, Thailand, in February, captured the horrific end of John and Jackie Knill's dream vacation. The images helped identify the Canadian couple, two victims among the 200,000 who lost their lives in the tsunami tragedy on December 26.

DNA DONOR: Forensic experts collect samples from an 11-year-old Thai boy.But the task of identifying thousands of other victims of the South Asian tsunami is not so simple. The desperate effort to identify thousands of victims has meant an arduous search for identifiers

It's an all-too-familiar scenario for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gene Codes, which developed the crucial software for identifying victims of the World Trade Center attacks (see Soul Searching, Sept. 2003 Bio-IT World, page 46).

Ironically, on the same day in February that New York City's chief medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, called off efforts to identify the remaining victims of September 11, Thailand's minister of the interior announced that Gene Codes' Mass Fatality Identification System (M-FISys) would be used in the Thailand Tsunami Victim Identification (TTVI) effort.

Search Goes On

Israeli and British forensic officials first asked about using M-FISys during the early days of the identification effort. Gene Codes CEO Howard Cash flew to Thailand in January, where he was invited to make a presentation to the TTVI scientific advisory board (SAB). The SAB reviewed various IT tools from around the world, including software used in Kosovo, and weighed the possibility of writing new software. However, the SAB's unanimous recommendation was to adopt M-FISys as the DNA matching software, and invite Gene Codes Forensics to manage the data exchange and curation.

The identification process involves entering data from DNA labs in 30 nations into M-FISys, which is then used by the TTVI to make the final call on the victims' identity. By mid-March, the board had officially identified 764 victims.

One of the biggest IT challenges is curating the incoming data for format and checking for errors before passing to the TTVI board. Cash notes that not all labs use the same protocols, naming conventions, or even reagent kits. "While labs in Thailand and China will use the Identifiler kit for testing postmortem remains, the standard operating procedure at the Australian Federal Police laboratory in Canberra uses Profiler Plus, so they might test their ante-mortem profiles (personal effects) for fewer bits of data," Cash explains.

Rather than perturb each team's protocol, Gene Codes is relying on IT to harmonize the data as much as possible. It's not trivial, but at least the small troupe of software engineers doesn't have to build M-FISys on the fly, as it had to do post-September 11.

But the scale of the task is another matter. Whereas 2,749 people died in the World Trade Center attacks, the tsunami claimed more than 75 times that total. More than 5,000 people perished along the Thailand coast. Although their bodies are more intact than those buried at Ground Zero, the violence of the tsunami scattered the remains widely. "It's not impossible to imagine that skeletal remains might be discovered in unpopulated areas years from now," Cash says.

Still, Cash predicts this effort will be easier than after September 11 for those doing classical forensic science. The remains of some World Trade Center victims were retrieved in 100 to 200 individual pieces. "If a leg was recovered from Ground Zero, fingerprints and dental records were not tools that could be applied to the ID process," Cash says.

Despite being submerged in water and exposed to tropical heat, tsunami victims were found relatively intact. The forensic scientists in Phuket were able to recover fingerprints. "Some identifications will be much easier, because all three major modalities -- fingerprints, odontology, and DNA -- can be used," Cash says.

Y Marks the Spot

Gene Codes has incorporated a new DNA identification procedure in M-FISys -- testing male-specific variations (Y-STRs) to complement analysis of the maternally transmitted mitochondrial DNA. Cash recalls at least one case where a victim's father was available, but no maternal relatives. "There was not enough genetic data to confirm an ID under the criteria that have been set (99.99 percent, with prior odds of 1 in 10,000), and the Y-STR profile was compared to the father to give a little more statistical certainty."

Despite the magnitude of the recovery effort, progress is being made at a remarkable pace. In the first two months of the identification effort, officials in Phuket had officially made 517 identifications, similar to the number identified at Ground Zero after two months. "And New York had terrific infrastructure and almost unlimited resources, including the largest forensic laboratory in the entire United States," Cash says.

"For those who lost loved ones, every additional day of waiting is a day too long, and our hearts break for the families. But no informed person can say that the TTVI process has been less than excellent."

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