When More Expensive Costs Less
Recently I was training a group of investigators at a large law enforcement agency on wet-vacuum forensic DNA collection, and discussing the best ways to apply the M-Vac System to their current cases. Over the course of our conversation, I learned there were a couple of people who were not overly enthusiastic about introducing a new collection method to the cases, despite the fact that the traditional methods used had only yielded an unusable partial profile and the investigators had limited other options to further their cases. Based on the level of care and caution law enforcement personnel must apply when investigating cases this hesitancy from some didn’t surprise me. But it did get me thinking about how to address it.
One of the arguments against the M-Vac System was the initial expense compared to other collection methods. Another argument was the way in which the samples were processed. It required a new method of processing and had yet to be validated, both of which could potentially add to the cost and time of processing. If adopted into the agency’s protocol and widely used, the thought was, the additional costs incurred could be dramatic. As the M-Vac System representative during the discussion, I had to agree that all the concerns raised were not only valid, but a distinct possibility – If the system was used improperly and/or inappropriately. The challenge then is how to help agencies adopt this method and use it correctly.
Before going any further, let’s talk about how much an M-Vac sample costs. It’s approximately $85 per sample and the equipment to run the collection system has an initial purchase price of just under $20,000. Compared to the cost of a swab, which is typically about $2, I fully acknowledge that is a substantial cost increase. Considering that the cutting method doesn’t cost anything, it’s even more. Clearly, if the M-Vac were used as a replacement for those methods, rather than an additional tool to be used when appropriate, the costs to the agency would be unreasonable.
However, let’s take a deeper look. First of all, everyone knows that the only thing that never changes is the fact that change is constant. When it comes to technology, change is not only constant, but also accelerating at an astonishing rate. Look at DNA profiling and where that has come in the last 20 years. In the late 1990’s, DNA profiles were low grade and required a significant amount of DNA material to generate the profile. Today, a fraction of that DNA amount is needed to produce a DNA profile so distinctive it can identify an individual with a confidence level of one in a trillion (or more). Combine that with other evidence of a good investigation and it should make a strong case against any suspect. In today’s world, DNA evidence is so influential that many investigators and prosecutors won’t take a case forward without at least attempting to get a DNA profile. Clearly, DNA evidence has become a mainstay of investigations and prosecutions and is definitely here to stay1. Some even say DNA profiles have replaced fingerprints in their level of importance.
Knowing the importance of DNA profiles, does it make sense to avoid adopting new methods of collecting DNA evidence? The vast majority of the detectives and crime scene investigators we talk to adamantly agree that new methods, as long as they are proven, should always be explored and used as soon as possible. Every case that is solved now, rather than later, results in actionable intelligence that will help prevent or solve future crimes.
In addition, solving a case closes the departments’ expenses. This provides a fixed amount including the cost of responding emergency police personnel all the way down to the costs of prosecuting the suspect. An open, lingering case continues to incur substantial costs. Each time a case is reviewed by future detectives, prosecutors and forensics teams, the cost of personnel time alone would be more than this new technology which may have helped solve the case when it was first active. Research has shown that just pulling a cold case off of the shelf and reviewing it costs approximately $35,0002. A perfect example is the Krystal Beslanowitch case, which was a homicide committed in 1995 but not solved until 2013 until DNA technology advanced to the point where the suspect’s touch DNA could be collected from the surface of a rock. Due to being reviewed a number of times over the years, the costs of this case had several multiples of $35,000 added to it before it was solved. Multiply that by the number of cold cases across the United States and the price tag is staggering.
In terms of DNA profiling, by far the most expensive portion of obtaining a profile is the lab costs. Extracting DNA from the sample and amplifying it to determine if there is adequate DNA material to move forward is estimated at $500 per sample. Should the sample be taken through the entire process, the average cost of the full process is about $2,000. In addition, considering the cost of lab equipment combined with the costs of hiring and training lab staff, it would be practical that anything that can be done to improve this process should be thoroughly explored. In light of this complete picture, obtaining a better sample on the front end by using a new collection method, such as the M-Vac, a hundred dollars price increase is a relatively insignificant amount.
An excellent example of how an M-Vac sample may have benefitted another case is where the investigators believed the suspect had touched a fabric while committing a heinous crime and most likely had left touch DNA material on the fabric in several places. Investigators used numerous swab samples trying to collect enough DNA material to get a profile. Unfortunately, all the swabs failed to produce a viable profile. At a cost of approximately $2,000 per sample, the lab costs alone of this one case had built up to tens of thousands of dollars. Does that mean it shouldn’t have been done or a limit should have been placed on the number of samples that are allowed? Absolutely not! Most people would agree that investigators must do everything possible to get a vicious killer off of the streets and there shouldn’t be a price tag on justice. At the same time, however, society also expects our law enforcement officials to be as effective as possible and constantly strive to improve methods and reduce costs where possible. So what difference could the M-Vac have made?
In this case, using an M-Vac, despite having a higher initial cost than the swab, may have saved this department and the investigation thousands of dollars due to the following factors. One, the M-Vac is significantly (usually 20-30 times)3 more effective at collecting DNA material off porous and/or rough surfaces such as fabrics, rocks and cement. It has been shown to collect over 22 times4 more DNA material (saliva) off of cotton, a common material for T-shirts, even after the swab had already sampled the stain. Investigators could have used the M-Vac to initially sample areas where DNA material was likely deposited, possibly covering enough area in one sample where several swabs would have been used. Had the results been positive, the sampling would have been completed and the case moved forward.
The second factor is the M-Vac can collect DNA material from a much larger surface area than the swab, and an even larger percentage compared to cutting. In our example case, the multiple swab samples taken could have been attained by a single M-Vac sample. That may not have saved money in the initial sampling, but the lab processing costs would have been significantly less.
I believe every investigator and forensic scientist makes the best decisions possible based on the information and tools available. Had the investigators known about the M-Vac during the initial stages, I strongly believe different choices would have been made. Regardless, arm-chair quarterbacking is not the purpose or goal of this article. Encouraging investigators and crime lab personnel to incorporate this information for future decisions most certainly is. This article is part of our effort to get the information about the M-Vac System out there. I would expect anyone else with relevant information in his or her respective fields to do the same. Clearly part of the equation is we want our tax dollars spent as wisely as possible, but another, even more important factor is, we want crimes solved and criminals taken off the streets. All of society, especially the victims of heinous crimes and their families, deserve the best effort, tools and technology available in the fight against crime.
The technology is here and the time is now to see why More Expensive really can Cost Less.
- Calandro, L., Reeder, D and Cormier, K. 2005. Evolution of DNA Evidence for Crime Solving – A Judicial and Legislative History. http://www.forensicmag.com/articles/2005/01/evolution-dna-evidence-crime-solving-judicial-and-legislative-history
- Davis, Robert C., Carl J. Jensen, and Karin Kitchens. (2012, March). Cold Case Investigations: An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes. U.S. Department of Justice.
- Improving DNA Evidence Collection via Quantitative Analysis: A Systems Approach
Boston University School of Medicine, Biomedical Forensic Sciences, 72 E Concord St, Boston, MA 02118
- Filter Apparatus Verification, 0.45 μm PES Filter Material Including Comparison
of Double Swab Method and M-Vac with Saliva Stained Cotton
M-Vac Systems, Inc. 640 W Sandy Parkway, Sandy, UT 84070
Jared Bradley is the President and CEO of M-Vac Systems, based in Sandy, Utah
Wet-Vacuum Forensic DNA Collection Continues to Gain Support
I have been in scientific related industries the majority of my adult life. In all that time, I am not sure that I have seen a device, product, service or method that has garnered more support in a shorter amount of time than the M-Vac System, with the possible exception of Viagra, but that is a whole other story.
So what am I talking about? The M-Vac System has, in its short time collecting forensic DNA for a living, been validated in multiple private and public labs and been used to help solve rapes, homicides, gang-related killings, molestations, armed assaults and other heinous crimes. Keep in mind that the system was originally designed to collect pathogenic bacteria off of food surfaces, biowarfare agents from the battlefield and viruses from critical areas in hospitals, not collect DNA material from forensic evidence. Fortunately for a number of victims and their families, we were able to discover that the M-Vac is amazingly adept at collecting DNA, even from porous surfaces such as a river rock, a hoodie sweatshirt or from a victim’s skin.
Interestingly enough, this discovery came about mostly by chance when I ran into a college buddy of mine who had gone into the FBI after graduating from college. I had gone into the military so while he was busting bad guys in California I was on the other side of the country jumping out of airplanes and doing air assault missions with the 101st ABN Division. Years later we ran into each other and in the process of catching up I described the wet-vacuum collection system I was helping market to the food, pharmaceutical and defense industries. As he listened to me explain the method, he made a simple statement that didn’t fully sink in for several years. He said, “Wow, I wish I would have had something like that at some of my crime scenes.” That’s it. Fortunately, I was smart enough to take the system to Sorenson Forensics, a private lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, and ask them to validate the effectiveness of the system, and the results they obtained launched MSI into the forensics market.
To this day I have only represented one product that is so effective that the people testing it have said “you should be up dancing on this table this product it so good!” Well, maybe with Viagra, but that is a whole other story. The point is, when it comes to collecting forensic DNA material, there are not many scenarios where I would say another method is more effective. Cheaper? Probably. Appropriate because there is ample DNA material there for a traditional method? In many cases, sure. But more effective? Not likely. With the combination of a sterile spray impinging the substrate surface and vacuum pressure being applied simultaneously, in the vast majority of scenarios a purely mechanical collection device will not have the ability to collect the amount of DNA material that the M-Vac can. Case in point. When Sorenson Forensics initially validated the M-Vac and compared it to the swabbing method, the M-Vac collected 40 percent more DNA from a saliva stain on polyester and 88 percent more from a blood stain on nylon fabric.
The Sorenson validation was only the beginning. Next came a series of very difficult cases that had either stalled or gone completely cold and the investigators were running out of options. In one of the first cases, a little girl had been murdered and possibly raped, then her body had been discarded in a body of water where she lay for 8-10 hours. During that time, as every investigator knows, the DNA evidence on her and her clothing was degrading at a rapid rate. Not surprisingly, by the time she was pulled from the water and her clothing was swabbed, no suspect DNA could be detected, even with the most sensitive lab equipment and processes. Fortunately, Sorenson Forensics had recently acquired an M-Vac System and they were able to resample the victim’s underwear. Amazingly, the M-Vac was able to collect enough DNA material to generate a profile of the suspect and the case was able to move forward. Additional cases have seen similar results. Not every case, unfortunately, but the bottom line is if there is DNA material on the evidence, even when it is minute amounts of touch DNA, the M-Vac System will likely collect it.
Another major milestone occurred when researchers at Boston University discovered how easily and effectively an M-Vac sample could be processed using a filter method versus spinning the sample in a conical vial. Based on their findings, MSI went on to find an off-the-shelf filter apparatus that makes concentrating the M-Vac samples quick, easy and the filter is compatible with multiple extraction methods including the Qiagen, Chelex and Promega methods. In addition to verifying the filter apparatus, the investigators and labs who conducted the verification found that compared to the swabbing method in collecting saliva from cotton, the M-Vac collected 39 times more than the swab, and when sampling the material AFTER the swab the M-Vac still pulled up over 22 times more than the swab did. At least for saliva on cotton, it is fair to say that the swabbing method leaves a significant amount of potentially critical DNA material behind, and that the M-Vac System is capable of collecting a much higher percentage of the deposited DNA.
As a new collection method in foreniscs, DNA evidence that has been sampled using the M-Vac System has not been through a complete Daubert or Frye hearing. However, evidence has made it through a pre-trial hearing and, as far as the author has been able to discern, there were no issues with the court accepting the evidence. Of particular notice is the importance of the DNA evidence to the case, which could only be classified as critical, so had there been any issue the case would likely not be moving forward. The major advantage of the M-Vac is it is a collection device, not a diagnostic tool, so many of the stipulations in Daubert/Frye do not apply. As more cases are adjudicated and M-Vac System collected evidence is more common, this concern should dissipate, but certainly until that happens it needs to be mentioned. Sterility testing confirming that the M-Vac System is DNA and RNAse free can be provided upon request.
Clearly the data and casework supporting the M-Vac System as a necessary method that should be available to every investigator is building, but compared to all the other cases non are so compelling as the recently solved Krystal Beslanowitch case. We don’t need to reiterate all the details here as this case has received national attention, but the sheer fact that the M-Vac System was able to collect enough touch DNA material from an river rock and help solve an 18 yr old cold case is worthy of mentioning. Combine that with the sexual assault research data that was just presented at the AAFS by the team from UC Davis and many would say that the story of the M-Vac System deserves serious attention. The bottom line is that wet-vacuum forensic DNA collection has data, credibility and has been used to help solve cases and will continue to do so.
For more information on this new collection method please go to www.m-vac.com.
Jared Bradley is the President and CEO of M-Vac Systems, based in Sandy, Utah.