Samantha Warnakulasuriya, Senior Forensic Scientist from the UK was in Sri Lanka to look into setting up a DNA laboratory
On a DNA trail.....
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A woman is raped and murdered in Newcastle, northeast England and the police come up with no suspect. The search is on and there is a "hit" -- a vagrant is arrested three counties away, tried, convicted and jailed. Justice has been meted out.

Soon after the crime is committed, a person in protective clothing, with mask, mop cap, gloves and overshoes is at the scene, meticulously picking up special clues, which prove to be the vital evidence that leads the police to the murderer.

Part of a team of forensic scientists who are into the latest cutting-edge technology of DNA profiling or typing, for Sri Lankan born Samantha Warnakulasuriya it is routine work.

"The conviction of the rapist-murderer shows the power of DNA profiling," says 37-year-old Ms. Warnakulasuriya, Senior Forensic Scientist working for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in the United Kingdom.

Just last week she was in her motherland to explore the possibility of helping the government to set up a national laboratory for this revolutionary technology in the aftermath of the tsunami.

"DNA profiling has a high level of accuracy. Ten areas plus a gender test are checked out in a DNA profile and it is a powerful tool in the identification of bodies, in criminal work and also ascertaining paternity," she emphasizes. "A billion to one is the chance of two unrelated persons having the same DNA profile."

The FSS, for which Ms. Warnakulasuriya works, is an executive agency of the British Home Office. "It is the market leader in the provision of forensic services and considered the best," she smiles, explaining that the FSS works closely with 43 police forces in England and Wales and has supported 35 countries.

After the war in Kuwait, the FSS helped that country to identify the thousands of people who had died in the conflict, through DNA technology. "It takes a long time to get the process moving, because specialized conditions, machinery and techniques are needed. In Kuwait, it took about five years. But once it is established, it is there and can be expanded into other fields," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.

Touching on the sophisticated system already in place in the UK, she says that the FSS has seven labs across the country, in London, Birmingham, Chepstow, Wetherby, Chorley, Manchester and Huntingdon, for the police to have easy access to the facilities. "Time is of essence, especially in crime detecting work and the FSS has an automated DNA system based on robotics, handling about 45,000 references each month," she says.

As a forensic biologist, she deals with crimes against people such as violent assaults, armed robbery, murder and rape. When on duty, she is on call day and night. Soon after a crime, she sits down with the police for a briefing on the circumstances that led to the incident and along with a pathologist agrees on a strategy to be followed and how best to approach the work. Thereafter it is a visit to the scene, after the scene-of-crime officers have videoed and photographed the area.

Then starts her job of picking up those all important "DNA clues" that come in the form of bloodstains and other body fluids or secretions, hair, nails or even fibres from other sources.

"We carry out crime scene examinations and interpret the blood patterns at the scene to reconstruct the crime. Every little detail is examined including the distribution of blood on a suspect's clothes. Does the blood pattern indicate that the victim was kicked? Was the victim dragged around the house? Then through a computer-aided design package, detailed graphics can be drawn to be produced in court so that judges or jurors do not have to look closely at graphic photographs of the scene of the crime," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.

With the setting up of the National DNA Databases both in England and Scotland, she says, the long arm of the law can be stretched even further, not only to other areas like Scotland but also into the past. Crime stains can lead to arrests long after the crime has been committed. For, it is the law in Britain that a DNA sample can be taken from anyone suspected of an arrestable offence, such as even erratic driving or jumping a red light, and loaded on the National Database.

That's what Operation Phoenix of the Northumbria Police in the northeast of UK is all about -- retrospective justice. Crime, particularly rape from as far back as 20 years ago, considered "cold cases", is being investigated again and 11 convictions have already taken place through DNA profiling, helping the victims to put the trauma behind them and move on.

The cases are numerous. Ms. Warnakulasuriya cites the abduction and murder of a 15-year-old in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The teenager's body had been found in a wooded area nine months after her abduction. No DNA profile was available because of the state of decomposition of her body.

But the profile the FSS had come up with from the hairs and fibres collected from the scene had been amazing. The kidnapper and murderer was a white man who had dogs. The FSS had not only figured out what kind of furniture he had but, working with a pollen specialist, even determined the varieties of flowers he grew in his garden. Checking back, the police had found him to be involved in two rapes -- within half a mile of his residence and the location from which the teenager was abducted -- 20 years before.

The techniques are also advancing - those days they were unable to separate male and female cells. But things have changed now. Ms. Warnakulasuriya cites a case of violent rape, where the woman was followed home, hit on the head and raped. When the perpetrator was disturbed in the act he did not ejaculate. The police identified a suspect. Though there were certain fibre transfers from the victim's clothing to his, the suspect was adamant that he did not rape her but was only in close physical contact with her. There was no seminal fluid to prove otherwise.

"Normally from fluids taken from body orifices, you cannot distinguish the male cells from female cells. For the first time, the FSS, working with the North Yorkshire Police, used a specialist DNA technique (Y-STR - connected to the paternal line) to identify the male cells from the 'intimate swabs' taken from the victim and he was jailed for eight and a half years.”

Now the technology has advanced in leaps and bounds and a DNA profile can be obtained from objects that have been touched under the specialist technique called Low Copy Number DNA, says this forensic scientist.

For Ms. Warnakulasuriya, the most poignant are the memories of Scotland's Dunblane primary school shooting incident in 1996 where gunman Thomas Hamilton killed 15 children and a teacher, wounded ten others and killed himself. Working for the Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Dundee at that time, she had the task of doing the blood pattern analysis.

How did she get into this line of work and does it traumatise her?
Ms. Warnakulasuriya's answer lies in her childhood. She was five when she accompanied her parents to England and it was there that she met her doctor-father's friend Dr. Haris Ranasinghe. She recalls how she listened wide-eyed to the experiences of this Sri Lankan pathologist of repute. That was the catalyst for a career most other people would consider strange.

Living in Wetherby, Yorkshire with her two dogs and two horses, she concedes there is some trauma in her job but colleagues provide moral support. "We can seek counselling from within the FSS if we feel the need," she says, adding, "This is the best job in the world". Fifteen years in the field prove her point.

Genetic laboratory in Sri Lanka?
A genetic laboratory has been a long felt need for Sri Lanka and a pre-requisite for the state sector to develop forensic services. Although plans were in the pipeline two years ago for such a lab, with the Forum for Research and Development and the Sri Lanka Twin Registry securing full funding for the project, it never saw the light of day, The Sunday Times learns.

However, in the aftermath of the tsunami, the importance of such a lab has been underscored once again. "Forensic services are multi-sectoral with different stakeholders such as the police, the Attorney General's Department and the Justice Ministry. The grant is from the Wellcome Research Trust and it is to be a collaborative project among the Sri Lanka Twin Registry, King's College, University of London and the Human Genetics Programme of the WHO. With the tsunami leaving in its wake thousands of unidentified bodies, the need for such a lab has been sorely felt," says Dr. Athula Sumathipala who was the coordinator of the psychosocial desk after the tsunami.

The uses of genetic or DNA profiling are wide and varied - disaster-victim identification, crime busting, detections in firearms crimes and establishment of paternity to name a few.

"The time has come to develop genetic capacity within the state sector and we are now in the process of raising awareness among all the key players," says Dr. Sumathipala adding, "If we had the capability, it would have helped the relatives of tsunami victims to identify the dead, carry out the burial rites and begin to heal psychologically."

The DNA profiling that Germany and the United Kingdom helped us with, we would have been able to do ourselves, he says, explaining that a medical team is hoping to carry out a demonstration on a small scale on some genetic (DNA) material preserved after the tsunami by Dr. Clifford Perera of the Galle Medical Faculty.

With the need for a genetic lab coming into focus again, Sri Lanka had sought the assistance of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in the UK and that's how Senior Forensic Scientist Samantha Warnakulasuriya came in with her expertise on February 14 to provide technical advice.

Ms. Warnakulasuriya has had a series of meetings with top officials including doctors and those in the Attorney General's Department and the Government Analyst's Department. She wound up her visit as the keynote speaker at a symposium on 'Forensic genetic services: From pre-tsunami luxury to post-tsunami necessity' at the Sri Lanka Medical Association yesterday.

"Canada, Kuwait and the Netherlands are setting up national DNA databases with support from the FSS. America is thinking about it. If Sri Lanka sets up a DNA database it will be the first one in Southeast Asia," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.

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