The scene was like from CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) TV show, where slides of dead bodies were shown to the audience and discussions on forensics were held. But no, it was from the third Forensic Science Symposium held at the Seameo Innotech in Diliman, Quezon City. The occasion was held in celebration of the 20th founding anniversary of the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute of the University of the Philippines (UP).
Ever since the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was first isolated by Friedrich Miescher in 1869, and its molecular structure identified by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, the applications of the DNA has evolved from the realm of science, to being applied to resolve many issues of humanity—such as social, criminal and political issues.
In the Philippines alone many paternity cases have been resolved. According to Dr. Maria Corazon de Ungria, head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory, the research status on DNA in the country is on a par with laboratories overseas.
“We are part of the Asian Science Forensics Network and we get opportunities every year to talk to different Asian labs to try to see how we are going to exchange practices and solutions to problems,” de Ungria said in an interview with the BusinessMirror on the side of the symposium. But she added, “We are getting there.”
Most of the researches carried out in the DNA laboratory were paternity cases, but they have been already part of collaborative projects, especially on criminal cases, most recent on human trafficking.
“We have been working on the DNA prokids which is using DNA to fight human trafficking, child trafficking, in particular,” she said.
The United Nations Children’s Fund alone has found out that more than 60,000 to 100,000 children were involved in prostitution, a form of child trafficking that is rampant in the country.
The DNA laboratory is also in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“We have a memorandum of agreement with DSWD and the [DOJ] to try to help them in the Innocence Project Philippines network on the wrongful criminal conviction of people.”
In the fight against crime, the DNA falls into a big role through forensic science and research.
State of forensic science and DNA research in the Philippines
Just like anyone who watches TV shows, such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), we often wonder how science and the advancement of technology has paved way into cracking crimes. But in the Philippines, the applications of these new technologies are still way beyond the hands of those who need to use it.
“We are the US [when it was] in the 1960s,” said Dr. Raquel del Rosario-Fortun, a professor at the UP College of Medicine, in reply to the question of the BusinessMirror on where the Philippines is in forensic science compared to other countries. Fortun is the current chairman of the UP Department of Pathology and holds the distinction as the first forensic pathologist in the Philippines.
“A classic example,” she said, “is the paraffin test. They [US] have junked it in the 1960s,” pertaining to the paraffin test on the hand of a person who was suspected of firing a gun to determine the presence of gun powder through chemical analysis.
“Forensic science is a basic discipline to answer specific questions,” Fortun explained. She said this field is used to address many issues in the country, such as crime and even mass disasters, such as the Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan), which struck in November 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people.
“That [Yolanda] was a very frustrating experience for me,” Fortun said.
In her presentation at the symposium, Fortun showed images that display malpractice in the basic steps in investigating dead bodies, such as opening of bodies,the writing of autopsies and death reports.
“It [malpratice] even becomes more glaring when you have a mass disaster. Notice how badly we deal with dead bodies,” she added.
Another important aspect, where the Philippines falls short in forensic science, is the lack of trained personnel. “The biggest challenge is we need more people in the lab.”
For de Ungria, many students and researchers have been knocking at their doorstep, but they lack the people to train them.
She said the lab receive support funding for it needs from other government agencies, including from Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, and the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology. She added, “We’ve got equipment and enough funding for research for now.”
Fortun said her first hurdle when she returned to the Philippines from a training abroad was to look for teammates.
“That’s the No. 1 problem in forensics; you have to be in a team.”
She emphasized that there is no training in the Philippines at all.
“I had to leave the country, but I always knew I had to come back.”
Need for fingerprint
and DNA database
Both de Ungria and Fortun agree that legislation is badly needed to answer the needs of the sector.
Fortun said a mandatory autopsy bill is urgently needed. “Our laws are outdated and we only have the sanitation code,” she said. “We need to define which deaths have to be investigated and how is it going to be done. Where, who and what training? Who will pay and where are the equipment?”
Fortun emphasized the need to prepare, most especially in disasters, such as Yolanda.
“In a mass disaster, your first priority would be survivors, but you also must have a system for dead bodies.”
It is a common misconception that people will get sick when surrounded by dead bodies, but it has been proven to be not true at all, she said.
“But you have to do something,” she said. “Number one issue is the presence of multiple bodies, their identity and you must have a way to systematically handle that.”
Citing the recent terrorist attack in France, Fortun quickly explained how the French system handled the situation.
“Right after the incident, they have sorted out the victims and have identified the assailants because they have database of the fingerprints. We have to have the AFIS [Automated Fingerprint Identification System].” The AFIS is a biometric identification where digital imaging is used to obtain, store and analyze fingerprint data.
To advance the forensic state of the country, what the Philippines needs is a DNA database. Christopher H. Asplen, an attorney at Hill Wallack Llp., told the symposium there is a need for a law to create a DNA database and the country can start in making a database for criminals.
“You would take DNAs from individuals who are convicted or arrested or both, and you would take their profiles and put them in this database,” Asplen said. “So that when a crime is committed, you can take the DNA from the crime scene and compare that profile with the database.”
There are about 75 to 80 countries that have this kind of database. Asplen emphasized that the Philippines needs it “very badly.”
“If you’re going to really fight crime with DNA, you can’t really fight it efficiently, unless you have a database and that’s the most important law that needs to be passed in the Philippines.”
Asplen also indicated that more money needs to be allocated. “Though it might be more of a legislative issue, but they [UP DNA Laboratory] just don’t have enough people at the UP Lab at the moment to do the amount of work that could be done if you really want to maximize the potential of DNA.”
He added, “The country has to invest in the resources in the lab, so that they can actually do the actual work, the quality is excellent, leadership is excellent.”
It is not also a human rights issue, he said. “It hasn’t been found to be a rights violation in the world,” Asplen said in the interview with the BusinessMirror. “In the US it’s not a human-rights issue, but a constitutional issue and that it is not unconstitutional.”
Although DNA testing, profiling and putting up a database might be expensive, according to Asplen, it provide the nation more security.
“It’s a big crime and justice issue,” he said.
For de Ungria, she and her team have already campaigned in the Senate and Congress to pass a DNA bill.
“We’ve actually been to the Senate and Congress through the years and proposed DNA bills…. What we need are champions who will carry it through,” de Ungria said, lamenting that the proposed bills have yet to be tackled at committee hearings and ended up in congressional cracks.
De Ungria emphasized the need to institutionalize or legislating DNA testing. “We are willing to cooperate and collaborate,” pertaining to drafting the bill and giving technical assistance.
De Ungria believes that political differences must be set aside because forensic application, disaster victim identification, paternity testing and criminal investigation are very vital in a developing and progressive country, especially in fighting crime.
“For us to progress, we need to pull down the barriers of division, let’s not heighten or elaborate too much on diversity,” de Ungria said.