Local DNA testing key in fighting crime

Kamangeni Phiri Features Editor
RAPE, murder, disputed paternity, break-ins and theft cases are reported daily by the media in Zimbabwe.

The country’s prisons are choking with the perpetrators of some of the crimes while in civil matters the courts ensure the aggrieved part is duly compensated.

What is, however, worrying is that at times the wrong man is convicted.

Courts often times rely on circumstantial evidence in serious matters like disputed paternity, rape and murder, in the absence of empirical scientific evidence.

That, however, is about to change. The National University of Science and Technology has opened the Applied Genetic Testing Centre (AGTC), a DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) testing laboratory.

AGTC is Zimbabwe’s first public sector DNA testing facility. The other is a private one – African Institute of Biomedical Science Technology (AiBST) in Harare.

Housed in the Department of Applied Biology and Biochemistry, the multi-purpose facility brings home to the ordinary man a key service that was previously a preserve of the rich.

“This is a One Stop DNA Testing Centre. We solve disputed paternity cases by doing DNA tests and we can do them locally unlike before when samples had to be taken to places like South Africa, the UK and the USA attracting high costs.

Our charges are reasonable and you get your results fast,” said Zephaniah Dhlamini, the chairperson of the department of Applied Biology and the scientist in charge of the laboratory.

DNA testing is critical in solving disputed paternity cases. Sometime in June, 72 percent of men who challenged the paternity of children they were paying maintenance for at the Harare Court for the period between January and June this year were not the kids’ fathers. They were only saved by the paternity tests results from South Africa.

The Nust DNA analysis laboratory uses state-of-the-art infrastructure and advanced molecular genetics techniques to deliver affordable high quality services in human, livestock and pathogen identification. It charges $100 for paternity tests and DNA profiling while it costs more than $500 for the same services in South Africa. Once sampled, a person will have their DNA certificate containing all the necessary information about them. It takes about three hours to generate a profile.

DNA testing services offered by the AGTC’s are Human Identification, Individual DNA Profiling, Paternity Testing and Relationship DNA Testing. The centre also does Medical Diagnostics which cover HIV Viral Load Tests, Genetic predisposition to various heritable diseases. It also does Forensic Analysis which covers sexual analysis cases, murder cases, and identification of victims of mass disasters.

“We give you your DNA profile and analyse it. This information is important as it makes it easier to identify a person’s remains in the event that they face a violent death like in a plane crash and can’t be positively identified by just looking at them.

We also can do in agriculture DNA testing on bulls and pedigree dogs. In the food industry – species identification in processed foods like tinned beef and sausages. We can also do GMO identification and quantification in imported grains” said Dhlamini.

The AGTC’s well-equipped laboratory has Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machines for amplifying small quantities of DNA to be analysed.

One can amplify DNA from a single strand of hair and tell the genetic make-up of a person. The laboratory uses a genetic analyser machine known as an ABI 3500 which can sequence DNA and analyse DNA fragments amplified by the PCR machine. It is these fragments that are used to distinguish individuals. The lab also has a Real Time PCR machine – the ABI 7500 – used to quantify DNA molecules and determine HIV viral load.

“We received the equipment in August 2014 and opened the forensic lab to the public at about the same time. We have 750,000 Zimbabweans on HIV therapy. The ABI 7500 helps people on HIV therapy to monitor if the drugs they are taking are fighting the disease or not.

A good treatment regime should reduce the numbers of HIV particles per volume of blood. It is advisable that a person taking ARVs checks the level of HIV in their blood three times a year. This is done by extracting HIV genetic material which is RNA (Ribonucleic Acid), convert it to DNA using a PCR machine and subsequent quantifying the number of HIV particles using the Real Time PCR machine. At the moment, no one is directly giving this service in Zimbabwe,” said Dhlamini.

Most clinical laboratories send samples to South Africa for HIV load determination. The process costs about $100.

“We are only validating various kits for HIV load determination. We will soon offer these important services to the public at a cost of between $40 and $50 per sample,” said Dhlamini.

The Nust forensic lab is in the process of being registered with the Medical Laboratory and Clinical Scientists Council of Zimbabwe.

“We charge cash only. However, we will eventually accept medical aid or facilitate clients who pay cash to claim refunds later from their medical aid associations once we complete registration,” said Dhlamini.

At $350,000, the equipment did not come cheap, but to experts, its unique insight into an individual’s ancestry and ability to solve serious cases like murder through Forensic Analysis is well worth the money.

“The lab is a critical weapon in fighting crime. We work with the Bulawayo CID Homicide in solving break-ins, rape and murder cases. We have worked with CID Homicide in Bulawayo in identifying human skeletal remains and analysing samples from murder victims. For example, the police officer (Inspector Hlalo Ndlovu) who went missing in 2014 and his remains found in May this year. It turned out he was killed allegedly by two self-proclaimed prophets from Bulawayo and his body dumped in a bushy area in December, 2014.

“We obtained DNA samples from his tooth brush, bone and missing teeth and they all matched. We then obtained DNA samples from his daughter and they also matched. We have done a lot of paternity tests as well,” said Dhlamini.

The AGTC is working on building a database for the DNA profiling for members of the public and uniformed forces.

This helps identify victims of plane crashes or disasters and trace criminals with ease.

The important equipment was sourced from both the US and UK.

“This is one area where Nust is committed to help the community while also generating income. Everyone has to pay for our services. We are supposed to self-sustain operations,” said Dhlamini.

The DNA laboratory is, however, being underutilised. Its operations are mainly limited to Bulawayo and some parts of the Midlands.

“Plans are underway to embark on a major marketing drive of the laboratory’s service to the judiciary, lawyers and the police countrywide.

We going to give them training workshops and teach them how to collect DNA evidence and how to interpret results from DNA tests,” Dhlamini said.

Dhlamini works closely with Aleck Maunganidze, a chief technician and a research technician, Anita Dube, at the forensic laboratory.

Maunganidze also doubles as a counsellor to clients.

Opaque window panes and solid brick walls separate potential curious faces and the operations of the Nust forensic laboratory.

“We maintain the practitioner-client confidentiality as well. This is why only the three of us and clients have access to the laboratory. I also have to counsel all our paternity test clients because some of them will not be expecting the results,” said Maunganidze.

Inspector Precious Simango of Bulawayo police says the Nust forensic laboratory has become a key partner in fighting crime.

“We take blood samples, semen and tissues from the crime scene to the lab for DNA testing. The police appreciate the services of the forensic laboratory. It is close to us and is very efficient. We have solved a number of rape, murder and break-ins with the help of the Nust DNA laboratory,” said Insp Simango.

A few lawyers from as far as Zvishavane and Gweru are bringing their clients to the DNA testing centre for paternity tests.

A Gweru-Shurugwi lawyer, Mavese Mapfumo, says the laboratory was a welcome development. He are excited by this development because the country now has its own DNA testing centre:

“The DNA testing centre reduces costs to litigants as it is closer. Even results come out fast unlike taking samples to South Africa. This adds efficiency to our courts which at times convicts a person based on circumstantial evidence. Crimes like rape and murder can be tricky so identifying a suspect might be difficult but with DNA testing it becomes easy.

“Our justice delivery system was lagging behind. Many Western and American states had these things. With scientific evidence it becomes easy to prove our cases.”

DNA profiling came about as a result of two independent breakthroughs in molecular biology that occurred at the same time on different sides of the Atlantic. In the USA the PCR was invented by Kary Mullis, while in the UK “DNA fingerprinting’’ was discovered by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.

DNA was first used to aid a criminal investigation by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1986. This investigation used DNA fingerprinting techniques to link semen stain samples, collected from two rape/murder cases that had occurred three years apart in 1983 and 1986, in a small village in Leicestershire, UK.

This result not only linked the two crimes and secured the conviction of the perpetrator Colin Pitchfork, but also exonerated an innocent man implicated in the murders and led to the first mass screening project undertaken for DNA profiling in the world.

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