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MFRC Hits Its Stride


A pproximately 40 people gathered for the Midwest Forensics Resource Center's 2004 annual meeting, July 15, at the Iowa State University Advancement Center. Members came from crime labs and universities across the organization's 10-state member region. Some of the states and organizations represented included the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa crime labs. Educators came from universities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois.

Much of the first part of the meeting was spent listening to presentations from researchers whose projects have been funded by the MFRC.

Barbara Lograsso, MFRC research program coordinator, said these projects are designed to lead to development of practical and useful technologies, instrumentation and methods for improving the state of practice of forensic science.

"Anything like this is just what the crime labs need because we just don't have the resources to do it ourselves," said Tom Grant, who's with the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory. "I know we're just starting this, but there are some real benefits coming out already."

George Kraus, director of Ames Lab's Biorenewable Resources Consortium, kicked off the first of four research presentations with an update on the status of his project entitled, "Developing Aptamers to Methamphetamines as Nucleic Acid Sensors." He relayed some frightening statistics about methamphetamine use in Iowa.

According to Kraus, Iowa is now number one in methamphetamine lab seizures per capita in 2004 and more than 12,000 people in Iowa over age 12 report methamphetamine use. "These are alarming facts," said Kraus, who hopes to help solve this problem or at least help manage it through the development of aptamers for methamphetamines.

Aptamers are single-stranded nucleic acids with advantages over antibodies. Kraus and co-investigator Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, an ISU professor in the biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology department at ISU and an expert in aptamer research, are working to develop aptamers with high specificity and affinity. Kraus and Nilsen-Hamilton are having some success at tailoring these aptamers to recognize specific molecules, such as those of methamphetamines.

"Our goal is to develop aptamers that will recognize molecules of one compound, such as methamphetamine, and not those of other compounds, such as ecstasy," said Kraus. "We're excited about the opportunity to take these results to the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation." The Iowa DCI is a partner in the research project.

Research being done for the MFRC is as wide-ranging geographically as it is in its focus. For example, a second research presentation at the annual meeting focused on work being performed by the University of Nebraska involving forensic analysis of trace explosives. In another project, researchers at the Northern Illinois Police Crime Lab are evaluating different systems as extraction methods for mitochondrial DNA analysis.

In an additional effort, the Illinois State Police Forensic Sciences Command is exploring the application of new methods of DNA amplification and expanding population databases of DNA profiles to aid in rape suspect identification.

"More than half our research projects are with external sources," said David Baldwin, director of the MFRC.

In addition to research accomplishments, the MFRC is moving ahead in its other key areas of casework assistance, training, education, and technical innovation in management and infrastructure. In the casework area, the MFRC has just completed development of its quality assurance plan and has begun working on test cases.

In training, the MFRC has developed a users guide on DVD for training in using the DataMaster breath analyzer, a piece of equipment used by authorities to measure alcohol levels in suspected drunk drivers. The MFRC is sending copies of the DVD to sheriffs and prosecutors in all 99 Iowa counties at the request of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

In education, efforts are being made to form a consortium that, among other things, will look at issues such as accreditation for university programs in forensic science. Also at the annual meeting, researchers from the ISU College of Business presented their plans to begin a management and infrastructure project studying the implementation of software systems used to manage data within the crime laboratories. This project was slated to begin in July.

Wrapping up the annual meeting, Baldwin said, "We continue to be amazed by the positive feedback we receive on the programs of the MFRC. We couldn't do any of this without the participation and support of the crime-lab community."

~ by Steve Karsjen