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Dr Nicole Ramlachan

While the T&T Police Service is still depending on lineups or ID parades since in some cases it is all that is available, with the addition of the DNA Database, DNA evidence has become critical for cross-referencing. This would allow for any case with related DNA evidence to be substantiated with scientific identification and analyses. Although legislation has been in place for years, including provision for testing by private and public labs, the wheels of justice have been slow to turn to utilise these critical tools for crime-fighting locally.

The result: T&T’s abysmal crime detection rate.

In the USA, initial DNA analyses can be done at local police stations, since the cost and procedures have become cheaper, more efficient, and are court-admissible allowing for preliminary evidence to be obtained to justify charges to be laid in felony cases such as first/second-degree murder, rape and other cases within 24-48 hours of arrest, then verified before trial through private or public forensic labs.

Dr Nicole Ramlachan is the consultant geneticist at Genix Diagnostic Ltd, a company that has been doing DNA testing in T&T and regionally since 2012. She has worked with successive government agencies on the Administration of Justice (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) Regulations, 2007, 2012 and 2018. The latest version of this bill allows for the admission of DNA records to be added to the database from all individuals employed in the Ministry of National Security and its related agencies, as well as from any suspect or prisoner processed through the TTPS.

Speaking to Sunday Guardian on Thursday, Ramlachan said “The Forensic Science Centre in St James had a forensic DNA facility for years, with equipment such as a genotype machine and a sequencer, the challenge was maintenance and updating these systems as required.”

Newer technologies, she said, allow for results in a couple of hours versus days.

She said Forensic Genealogy has helped authorities to solve cold cases or even very difficult cases including unidentified persons, sexual assaults and homicides.

“DNA testing was first used to convict a murderer in 1987 and technologies have improved from the traditional PCR-based STR analysis that was used to build the CODIS database in the US as well as several others worldwide, due to its limitations.

“We now have next-generation sequencing techniques using SNPs, whole genome and even mitochondrial analyses to pull out DNA matches from even the dirtiest or degraded samples.”

She said DNA can also be analysed using advances in conventional workhorses like Capillary Electrophoresis, with new and improved systems like eight-colour amplification with better bioinformatics. Ramlachan said database management and sharing of this information was also critical and pivotal in the family ancestry database software that police used to catch the Golden State Killer in 2018 who was at large for 40 years, using a match to his relative in the GEDMatch database.

She said they were able to use a decades-old evidence sample to make this match, emphasising the critical need for the preservation of DNA evidence in these cases.

Ramlachan said rape kits, clothing and material collected at the scene of a crime must be subjected to stringent record-keeping and tracking to allow for its timely submission, preservation and presentation of re-analysis years later as needed.

Evidence gathering by the TTPS needs to be

done in a skilled, scientifically sound manner

Without a combination of robust evidence gathering, preservation and rapid analysis of DNA from crime scenes through database management and bioinformatics, there is no way that the abysmal detection rate can be reduced or even addressed for these kinds of crimes in T&T.

Ramlachan said qualified technicians were pivotal for quick turnaround times in solving crimes using DNA evidence with the passage of the DNA Bill.

She said, however, it must start with evidence gathering by the TTPS which needed to be done in a skilled and scientifically sound manner to avoid any questions as to its validity.

Ramlachan said training was pivotal to allow for the admission of this evidence as well as quick turnaround of evidential material, which was, unfortunately, more often not the case in T&T where DNA evidence regularly was destroyed or went missing contributing to the creation of these perpetual unsolvable cases.

She said cold cases, on the other hand, had been solved all over the world with the introduction of DNA evidence, including the release of those wrongly accused, so the general population including such incarcerated individuals, victims and their families should welcome its inclusion in the courts of T&T.

Ramlachan said it was possible to apply DNA analysis to deal with unidentifiable human remains as biological material like bone or teeth can be used in these analyses, as requested by the TTPS and relatives of missing people or victims.

She said genetic testing was important in all relevant aspects including human health and wellness, veterinary, agriculture and identity (paternity, forensics, and ancestry).

Ramlachan said some of these improved techniques utilised on samples obtained from clothing, hair without a root or burnt and/or degraded tissue with low quantity DNA include Y-STR or mitochondrial DNA, SNPs and even whole-genome analyses.

She said like in paternity and relationship testing, in addition to biological fluids such as blood, saliva, seminal or vaginal fluid, non-conventional samples like a toothbrush, chewing gum, fingernail clippings and post-mortem tissue samples can be tested for identity by these using newer DNA laboratory techniques and bioinformatic analyses.

Ramlachan said many of these samples were previously useless as DNA was undetectable as too scarce or degraded for conventional analyses. These have been a critical tool in solving murders, sexual assault and cases involving unidentified people worldwide.

Ramlachan, an associate professor in Biotechnology at the UTT also said there were several programmes locally and abroad that can graduate individuals with the knowledge necessary to bring DNA technology into the mainstream.

She said the UTT and UWI both offered degrees with components of Biotechnology and Genetics either as minors or incorporated into the programmes while the UWI (Mona) offered a post-graduate diploma in forensic science.

Ramlachan said the AP-sponsored scholarships in Forensic Science had produced several graduates from international programmes ready to work in the public and private sector.

She said while DNA was instrumental in solving crime, there were concerns about personal information in the DNA database being compromised.

Ramlachan said one scenario was that the mandatory DNA samples from police officers, prison officers, Defence Force personnel, fire officers, Immigration personnel, Customs officers, private security personnel as well as the prison population can potentially fall in the wrong hands and used for nefarious purposes.

She advised that proper legislation be put in place to protect personal data such as DNA profiles once collected for the national DNA Database.

Who is Dr Nicole Ramlachan?

Dr Ramlachan holds a PhD in Genetics from Texas A&M University, USA and a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from the University of Guelph in Canada. She has extensive experience in research in the areas of genetics, specifically in the areas of immunogenetics, clinical genetics, forensic DNA analyses and molecular biology.

Ramlachan has worked with the Ministerial appointed DNA committee for implementation of the Administration (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) Act, 2012 in T&T. She is involved in genetic testing locally, including SARS-Cov-2 testing and research, and is certified in ISO/IEC 17025 testing laboratory standards.

She has spent the last 25 years doing teaching and research in seven countries, in academia and private companies as well as for the US and Canadian Federal Governments and international agencies based in Central and South America. Ramlachan was also involved in the sequencing of the Bovine and the Cacao genomes and is well published internationally.

She has also had extensive experience in academia and training graduate and undergraduate students, technicians and interns in genetic analyses in the US, Canada, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Trinidad.

Ramlachan has tissue culture experience and has worked on virology and microbiology projects with research models studying bacterial and HIV/retroviral infection, as well as in the production of monoclonal antibodies. Also, she has set up laboratories in Trinidad, Guyana and Latin America. Ramlachan also holds memberships in several international societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science.