When you hear the word “forensics” you tend to think of cadavers being autopsied to figure out the causes of and circumstances around the deaths. There have been a number of television series developed around forensics, modern versions of older detective whodunit programs.
In recent years, advances in genetics have been used in forensics. The study called forensic genetics has many applications. Over at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, we are fortunate to have experts in forensic genetics training our scientists in activities organized by the Institute of Biology. I attended a symposium on the matter yesterday, which got me thinking about what forensic genetics might mean for the Philippines.
Perhaps the best known application of forensic genetics is the identification of victims of natural disasters and, more gruesome, of mass executions and terrorism. In the latter case, the killers are often known—terrorists or the military forces of a dictatorship—and it is the victims who need to be identified.
Victims of 9/11
Dr. Mechthild Prinz worked with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in examining the people killed in the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Center Twin Towers. At the UP symposium, she described the often gruesome work that led to the identification of 1,637 of the victims of 9/11.
The genetics part involves matching the DNA of the victims with the DNA of the people looking for missing loved ones.
We all know of DNA testing to establish paternity, and that is fairly simple compared with the forensic genetics of dealing with the charred remains of those killed in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Also at the symposium, Dr. Zoran Budimlija described the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which included attempts to identify the remains of some 8,000 men and boys killed and buried in several mass graves in Srebrenica in 1995.
A second important application of forensic genetics is exemplified by the work of the Innocence Project in several countries, including the Philippines. Locally, the partners in the Innocence Project include the University of the Philippines.
Instead of looking for fingerprints, forensic genetics uses DNA from tissue samples or body fluids for evidence to prove that the criminal was responsible for a particular crime.
Checking the US Innocence Project website, I found out that DNA analysis had played a substantial role in establishing innocence. As many as 329 cases involved the exoneration of convicts, including 20 inmates on death row.
The need is even more urgent in the Philippines, with the Supreme Court releasing statistics in 2004 establishing a high judicial error rate of 72 percent. It worries me to read in the US Innocence Project website that the most common reasons for wrongful convictions were: eyewitness misidentification, government misconduct, informants, inadequate defense, false confessions or admissions, and invalidated or improper forensic science, all of which are serious problems in the Philippines. I shudder to think of how many Filipinos are in prison, sometimes sentenced to life imprisonment, for crimes they did not commit. The Innocence Project offers some hope.
Another speaker at the symposium was Dr. Marie Allen of Sweden, who is known for her forensic work on people from the past, and I mean many centuries ago. She examined two skulls believed to be that of St. Bridget and her daughter Katrina. The work of Allen and her colleagues included looking at the maternal mitochondria of the two skulls. The result? The two persons whose skulls were studied were not biologically related; dating showed that they lived 200 years apart, and were not from the time period of St. Bridget and Katrina.
Dr. Cora de Ungria of the UP Natural Sciences Research Institute has also been doing work on historical remains, and we might be able to clear the air on controversies surrounding the remains of our heroes such as Jose Rizal.
Even further back in time, genetic research offers another kind of forensics: establishing who the “Filipino” is in terms of our ancestry. A Filipino-American Fulbright scholar, Sheila Estacio Dennis, who was involved in the investigations of the Twin Towers attack, is now in the Philippines working with Dr. De Ungria on forensics and ethnicities in the Philippines.
There is still another aspect of forensic genetics that I was not quite aware of, and I found out about this while checking the Internet for the works of Dr. Prinz. I was fascinated with one of her journal articles reporting on the work she did with colleagues, checking six genes known to be associated with sudden deaths, which span the entire life cycle, from crib deaths in infants to what has been labeled, at one time, sudden unexplained nocturnal deaths, better known in the Philippines as “bangungot” and also known as “nightmare death syndrome.” Their study involved people of different ethnicities.
The current explanation for bangungot is that it is Brugada’s syndrome, a pathological condition involving the electrophysiology of the heart. I will qualify here that my position is that bangungot may be a label that covers several syndromes and not just Brugada’s. What is important, however, is that Brugada’s syndrome is a genetic condition. Thus, identifying the genes involved, in a mysterious or unexplainable death, can then lead to the counseling of bereaved family members (i.e., they can have themselves checked for heart problems that might lead to bangungot).
I can boldly predict that as we explain more of the unexplained mystery deaths, we will see not just bangungot being unraveled, but also fewer accusations or suspicions of kulam or witchcraft in these deaths.
Forensic genetics is exciting, with so much potential in so many fields, from criminal justice to human rights, from public health to national heroes. Rather appropriately, the symposium was held two days after Easter, showing another type of “resurrection,” where the dead are brought back to life to solve mysteries.
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