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No cold case – Uni researchers explore the future of forensic genomics

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Published on Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Six new interdisciplinary research projects have received multi-year funding in the context of the Audacity funding instrument of the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. 

The research project CRIMTYP, led by Prof. Silvia Allegrezza from the Faculty of Law, Economics and Finance and Dr Patrick May from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), explores the future of forensic genomics. The project will integrate academic fields of expertise at the University of Luxembourg together with law enforcement agencies as well as public and private actors in the field of genomics and next generation sequencing.

Within the last 15 years, DNA sequencing has revolutionised human genetics research. It is now possible to sequence a complete human genome inexpensively and efficiently. New methods open up new opportunities for the so-called Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP) – estimating the externally visible characteristics of a person who left traces of their DNA at a crime scene – as well as studying heritable phenotype changes to solve crimes. FDP may indicate concrete genetic aspects: a sample from the crime scene can offer information about hair, skin and eye colour or age, lately even face recognition, biogeographical ancestry, geographical origin, kinship, lineage, behaviour or genetic diseases of the potential offender.

This revolutionary technique already proved its efficacy in the case of the Golden State Serial Killer, a burglar, stalker, peeper, rapist and killer known to have murdered 12 victims and raped over 50 others in California from 1974 through 1986. The case remained unsolved for more than 40 years until investigators used DNA genealogy to track down and arrest the offender in 2018.  

Unsolved serial crimes like the Golden State Killer case have become the subject of various cold case task forces using newest FDP techniques, many of which have achieved remarkable success. Forensic tools that were unavailable when crimes were originally committed have shed new light on previously unsolved offenses, allowing investigators to connect cases to establish previously unseen trends and combine intelligence.

While these techniques revolutionise criminal investigation, they also pose unprecedented challenges: Knowing that non-genetic factors are involved in the establishment of certain traits (like height or behaviour), could results of FDP be misunderstood? Can FDP predict more than external appearances? And from a legal point of view, to what extent and under which conditions should FDP-related information be stored in databases? How could or should the protection of fundamental rights of the ‘unknown’ individual be improved?

The interdisciplinary project intends to combine legal and genetics science to address these questions and explore the future of FDP while protecting citizens’ privacy and fair trial rights. Prof. Silvia Allegrezza is Associate Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. An expert in criminal justice, she has done extensive research on the relationship between regulatory and criminal law in banking and finance (including cryptocurrencies, money laundering, and terrorism financing) and criminal justice and fundamental rights in Europe.

Dr Patrick May leads the Genome Analysis team within the Bioinformatics Core at the LCSB. As an expert in genomics and Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) applications, he has participated in extensive international research projects on genetics in complex diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease.

“FPD is already used extensively in criminal investigations, but the underlying genetic technologies are lagging behind the current state-of-the-art in genomics. With the advent of new genomic precision technologies, in particular NGS, and the possibility to sequence a complete human genome for less than 300 EUR, FDP will gain another boost in terms of opportunities, precision and reliability. It will of course come with many ethical and legal challenges that will have to be addressed,” says Dr May.