Monday, September 22, 2008

DNA database of offenders could help solve crimes, says former US attorney

September 22, 2008

Claire O' Connell-Irish Times-Dublin, Ireland

A DNA database of known offenders could help solve crime in Ireland, according to a Californian official who prosecuted OJ Simpson. Rockne Harmon told a genetics conference in Dublin that he was "surprised" to learn recently that Ireland has no such database.

"I can't imagine being an investigator trying to solve a crime without an offender [DNA] database - I wouldn't recommend it," said the retired deputy district attorney at a public event in Ballsbridge on Saturday to celebrate 50 years of genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

He described a series of grim serial killer cases that had been solved - sometimes decades after the event - by comparing DNA from crime scenes against genetic sequences of known offenders. "If there is no known suspect, it may be someone in the database," explained Mr Harmon.

The Californian database had genetic details of over one million offenders, and from the start of next year anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony would have a sample taken for DNA analysis, he said.

When questioned whether this compromised the assumption that a person was innocent until proven guilty, Mr Harmon said that if an arrested individual was not convicted they could have their genetic information removed from the database.

"Will people feel that they can't trust the government if they have their profiles? Sure. But I think the question needs to be will the greater community benefit from having a tool like this that can and has solved [cases]," he said.

Genetic information was also the key to tracking the origin of HIV, which moved from chimpanzees to humans in Cameroon in around 1930, probably while a hunter was butchering an infected chimp for bushmeat, explained bioinformatics expert Prof Paul Sharp from the University of Edinburgh. The virus then took hold in the large city of LĂ©opoldville (now Kinshasa) from where it spread out to other parts of Africa and around the world, he said.

Attendees also heard about advances with stem cells, which have the capacity to develop into other cell types. Scientists want to harness stem cell activity in patients with neurodegenerative conditions, explained Prof Steve Minger from Kings College London. "If we can understand the process, then maybe we could be able to give people drugs to repopulate brain cells in conditions where people lose them, like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease," he said. Prof Minger described how treated stem cells grown in the lab could provide useful models of human disease for scientists to study, rather than looking at animals.

The conference also heard from the Government's chief scientific adviser, Prof Paddy Cunningham, about the challenges of feeding a growing global population, and from Prof Steven Jones, at the University of London, on how fertility trends in Europe are reducing genetic variation, which he described as the "raw material" of evolution.

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