Blood from babies: filling the DNA databases

By Anna Sandiford 15/03/2010

The state of forensic science in the USA has caused concern for some time and was even given centre stage at the recent American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual conference entitled, “Putting Our Forensic House in Order: Determining Validation and Expelling Incompetence” (see earlier post).

Unfortunately, until things get into gear, trouble will continue. Not least in places like Oklahoma where bodies stack up at Oklahoma examiner’s office where eleven bodies at the Oklahoma mortuary are unclaimed and taking up valuable storage space, one of which has been there for 11 years! Mondays in particular are a problem because the number of bodies coming into the office exceeds storage capacity and there is a need to stack people on the floor.

Perhaps more disturbing is the story that between 2003 and 2007, Texas authorities gave hundreds of blood samples from new born babies to a U.S. Armed Forces laboratory for use in a database (Texas Supplied Newborn Blood Samples to Forensic Database) without telling anyone they were doing it, including the parents of the babies. Collection of blood samples from new born babies is commonplace and allows the children to be screened for various diseases, thus allowing early intervention and also data collection for statistical purposes. The blood spots are usually collected by way of a pinprick to the heel and blotting the blood onto what is termed a blood spot card. Texas law was changed in 2009, the new legislation expressly authorising the storage and specified uses of the samples. The state said it had destroyed all the blood spot cards for samples collected before May 2009. However, what about the DNA information that was obtained from the blood spots (given that they screen 800,000 samples per annum)? If the DNA profile has already been established from the blood spots and entered into a database then there’s no great problem with destroying the cards, is there (although I accept that no new information can be obtained once the card are destroyed)?

I have no real issues with collection of samples for scientific research. For example, I am not opposed to collection and storage of DNA profiles from people who are not convicted of criminal offences; as I have mentioned in past blogs I have given DNA reference samples on several occasions. I do however feel that collection and use of samples without informed consent is the wrong way to go about promoting confidence in scientific research and developing trust between scientific researchers/the corporations or governments that fund them and the general public.