Denver OME Receives Rapid DNA Processing Grant

Published on May 23, 2022

Technology would help ID victims in mass casualty incidents, next of kin, unidentified decedents

The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner (OME), a division of the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE), received a $386,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security to purchase an in-house rapid DNA processor which can expedite identifying victims of mass casualty events across nine Colorado counties.

The grant is part of the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) that includes risk-based grants to assist state and local efforts to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism and other threats.

The rapid DNA technology can produce test results at OME in less than two hours—compared to months at an outside facility using older processes.

“Having the ability to process DNA on site, in a matter of hours, greatly improves our ability to find and notify decedent’s families. This identification allows loved ones to have a burial, to obtain death certificates and to receive justice, in some cases,” says Dr. James Caruso, OME’s Chief Medical Examiner. “The pain for families can be unbearable when they don’t know where there loved one is and aren’t able to give a meaningful and proper goodbye.”

The funding for this technology fills a gap in the state’s emergency preparedness. Should a mass casualty event occur, like an airliner crash or natural disaster, OME could take the DNA processor to that area to help identify victims and eventually alert their families.

This newer technology will also help find next of kin for those examined or autopsied at OME. Right now, there are 237 decedents for which OME can’t locate their families, dating back to 1998.

Another use of the DNA processor is to identify people who remain unknown. Right now, in Denver, there are 17 deceased individuals who remain unidentified. For some, their profiles are listed on several genealogy databases with hopes a relative’s DNA will match and lead to a name. For others, the new technology will allow a DNA profile to be added to databases and lead to an identification through genetic genealogy.

Nationally, DNA analysis has led to the identification of 361 crewmen on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor as recently as last year. DNA was also used to identify victims in the condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida that killed 98 people.

DNA analysis has also proven to be a highly successful tool for law enforcement, which regularly submits DNA recovered at crime scenes to a national DNA database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). CODIS then compares submitted DNA with DNA collected from people arrested for and convicted of crimes.

And lawyers regularly use DNA testing to show a relationship to a deceased person, including paternity, maternity, and sibling testing.

The grant will cover the purchase of a DNA processor and the equipment necessary to run the machine, including hardware, software, hundreds of tests, access to databases, and training of staff.

OME will soon solicit bids from qualified vendors of DNA processors and hopes to begin using this new technology within a year.