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'Designed with a forensic scientist in mind': Wisconsin company develops technology to advance DNA analysis

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Promega Develops Advancement to DNA Analysis Technology

The new system will help scientists analyze degraded DNA samples.

FITCHBURG (WKOW) -- Scientists at a company headquartered in Dane County have developed new technology that has the potential to change DNA analysis across the globe. It's the Spectrum CE System from Promega. 

The tool performs capillary electrophoresis (CE), a technique that lets forensic analysts process DNA samples and determine if they can be identified to a person. 

CE isn't new, but those at Promega who helped develop the Spectrum CE System say their product expands what's possible. 

"We are pushing the innovation of CE. We are pushing the capabilities of it," Lisa Misner said. Misner is Promega's Genetic Identity Training Development & Technical Support Manager. 

"This is the first CE instrument that's been designed with a forensic scientist in mind," she said. "We're talking about crime laboratories, your sheriff's department laboratories, things of that nature."

Making advancements in analysis technology

Right now, existing CE technology allows scientists to analyze 6 components at the same time. Spectrum CE increases that to 8. 

Though the change might seem small, Misner said it can make a big difference, particularly when analysts are trying to process degraded DNA samples. 

"Might be a cold case, missing persons, any sample that has been left exposed to the elements where the DNA could degrade over time, those are some of the most challenging samples that a forensic laboratory can encounter," Misner said. 

When scientists go to process degraded samples, it's rare for them to be able to identify all the markers they would like to make a DNA match, according to Sara Huston Katsanis, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University. 

"You can't add the DNA back. If it's broken down, it's broken down, but whatever we can do to take what is broken down and to try to amplify it up and to visualize it is valuable," she said. "So, any techniques that we have to improve the ability to analyze whatever fragments are there is valuable for all sorts of forensic applications." 

Katsanis said there's evidence Spectrum CE provides a slight improvement in analyzing degraded DNA samples. 

"That's hugely valuable, even if it just helps one case," she said. "I mean, one case is one more case solved."

Katsanis said while the advancements made by Spectrum CE appear to be a small step forward rather than a groundbreaking change, there is a large range of potential applications. 

In addition to helping law enforcement solve cold cases, she said improved 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 to bring closure to families as well," Katsanis said.

Changing scientists' workflow

Misner has been working to help develop the Spectrum CE System for nearly a decade. During that process, she said she drew on her own past experience as a forensic analyst. 

"I was able to put myself back in my shoes as an analyst, back in the shoes of my customers and try to think of, what would I want if I was back in the laboratory again," she said. 

That led to the other improvement Spectrum CE makes, which affects scientists' workflow. 

Misner said, right now, forensic analysts put their samples directly in the field where the analysis happens, and most CE instruments only hold two sample plates.

"Once you start your run, you can't do anything with it," she said. "You have to allow that run to stop before you can add more plates."

Misner said this means scientists can sometimes spend quite a bit of time worrying about scheduling or waiting for a run to finish, before they can start their own analysis. 

In an effort to change this, developers at Promega added a simple feature to Spectrum CE: a drawer. 

The new tool can hold up to four plates of samples at a time. When it finishes analysis on one plate, it will automatically move on to the second, and scientists can replace the finished plate with a new one. 

"It's not something we want [analysts] to have to think about," Misner said. "We don't want this to be a hurdle in their workflow. We want to provide them something that makes their day go a little bit smoother and faster."