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In Wake of Terrorist Attacks, Genomic Sector Heeds Grim Call to Identify Remains

NEW YORK, Sept. 26 - In the aftermath of what has become the worst terrorist attack in history on US soil, a handful of genomic companies has volunteered their tools and technology, their manpower and money in the millions, for the grim task of identifying the missing.

The New York City medical examiner's office, which oversees the recovery and identification efforts at the demolished World Trade Center complex, has gotten help from three genomic companies to perform a task that has thrust forensic genetic identification to a new, improbable level.

Myriad Genetics, Celera Genomics, Applied Biosystems, and a handful of smaller genomic firms from around the world have been helping city, state, and federal law enforcement to identify countless bits of human remains and match them with samples provided by relatives.

These companies have their work cut out for them.


The Task


What is left of the World Trade Center is considered a crime scene, and the work that is being carried out there around the clock is primarily a homicide investigation of unfathomable proportion, according to the medical examiner's office. 


To be sure, DNA analysis of the sort being employed in New York these past two weeks has become the standard way to identify victims in scenes of mass disaster. But the dimension of the attack on the World Trade Center -- the number of bodies thought to be involved coupled with the sheer size of the structures that were obliterated -- has made this particular effort the largest and most challenging in history.


The site that the medical examiner's office, together with the New York City Police and Fire Departments, the New York State Police, FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, and other recovery officials must sift through is a smoldering jumble of some 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete and 600,000 square feet of glass encased in 43,000 windows. 


Each of the twin towers' 110 floors -- which comprised reinforced concrete platforms atop a metal deck supported by steel cross beams -- spanned a full acre and weighed nearly 5 million pounds, according to the Port Authory of New York and New Jersey, which operated the center. And when the towers fell on the morning of Sept. 11, they left a pile that dug 40 feet below street level and reached more than 60 feet into the air.


This is where specialists dig, handful by handful, to recover the remains of more than 6,400 individuals believed to be missing.


As of Tuesday, the recovery effort yielded about 150 bodies that have been identified using traditional fingerprints and dental records, according to the official at the medical examiner's office. That office, and in particular the forensic biology laboratory led by Robert Shaler, had also extracted DNA from 3,200 of roughly 3,600 tissue samples received so far, and has generated DNA profiles of 830 of those, the official said. Ultimately, Shaler said he hopes to work with Myriad, Celera, and Applied Biosystems to extract DNA from as many as 4,000 tissue samples each day.


The Relatives


Outside a vast indoor pier perched on the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan, a slow, somber stream of people makes its way toward a security cordon flanked by New York City police armed with machine guns. All day and into the night, the people, relatives of the World Trade Center missing, walk past a tangle of news cameras along a narrow catwalk covered with copies of photographs of loved ones.


Once inside the pier, a one-time exhibition hall, a Red Cross representative collects genetic material either from an item that once belonged to their relative or from a swab taken from the inside of their own cheek. Relatives who are not in New York are instructed to go to the Laboratory Corporation of America, whose network of 24 labs and roughly 900 "patient service centers" nationwide shares with the Red Cross the duty of collecting DNA samples.


Material collected from the pier are sent for testing at the New York State Police labs, 90 miles north of the city, as well as to Myriad, based in Salt Lake City, and to Celera's headquarters in Rockville, Md. All the relatives can do now, authorities say, is wait.

 

The Companies


A specialist in high-throughput DNA sequencing, Myriad has had a contract with the State of New York for a little more than one year to conduct forensic DNA testing in criminal cases, according to William Hockett, a company spokesperson. 

"It was logical for [recovery and identification officials] to think of us," he told GenomeWeb. "The idea was to quickly get up and running and accept [tissue] samples, which we have done. We've been asked to run the samples by the State of New York, and we're doing just that."


They started by receiving and analyzing "several thousand" buccal swabs provided by relatives, Hockett said. "We process those by extracting DNA and we're populating a database with reference of samples from these relatives so we can make the victim identification."


Although tissue from the recovery site remains slow going, samples provided by relatives and sent via the State Police arrive regularly to Myriad's labs, Hockett said. "We expect there to be a fairly steady stream of samples coming in, rather than a mass of samples in the beginning and a small trickle later on." 

 

"I think it will be a slow and steady process over a long period of time," he added. "More than one year." What is the cost to Myriad? "We haven't even thought of that, and it's unlikely we will," said Hockett.

 

Meanwhile, Celera, armed with samples provided by sister company Applied Biosystems, of Foster City, Calif., has contracted with the medical examiner's office to analyze its own share of DNA. 

 

A spokeswoman for Applied Biosystems said that her company has set up a task force to help it learn how it can best help in the tissue identification process. "We are providing full cooperation with all of our customers responding to the New York City and Washington attacks," she added. 

 

She would not offer any specifics, but GenomeWeb  learned from other sources that the company would supply the medical examiner's office with $1 million worth of DNA kits and sequencing equipment. 

 

A source at Hitachi America, which manufactures the technology used by Applied Biosystems, told GenomeWeb that "two [gene-sequencing] units were expedited for Applied Biosystems two weeks ago," he said.

 

"They were shipped to New York," he said on the condition of anonymity. "There were special arrangements made to get them transported from California to New York." The units arrived in Westchester County, from where they were shipped by truck and with police escort to lower Manhattan some 40 miles to the south, the source explained.


Separately, the Hitachi Group of Companies in North America donated $1 million to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, and the Hitachi Foundation, based in Washington, DC, separately donated $50,000 to the Red Cross.


Amersham Pharmacia Biotech is another company that made moves to help recovery and identification efforts. A diagnostic-imaging firm whose parent company is headquartered in the UK, Amersham has offered the medical examiner's office its reagents and "any other help that we are able to provide," according to Marcy Saack, a company spokeswoman.


Calling Amersham's offer to the New York City medical examiner's office "open-ended," Saach said that "we were looking to see what they needed, and then see what we would have the ability to give."  

 

The company is still waiting to hear from the medical examiner's office.


Amersham, which has US-based businesses in Piscataway, NJ, and Princeton, NJ, has also established a $500,000 fund intended to help individuals from those cities who were directly affected by the events in New York and Washington, DC.


"Our employees share the deep sense of loss felt by all of us as a result of this tragedy," Andrew Rackear, president of Amersham Pharmacia Biotech, said last week. "We hope that this fund can help ease the pain and suffering of our friends and neighbors most impacted by these tragic events."  


Lastly, Qiagen, with headquarters in Venlo, the Netherlands, has offered to donate $250,000 worth of nucleic-acid purification kits to New York, a company spokeswoman confirmed. It, too, is waiting for a response from the medical examiner's office.


A note on the focus of this article: 
GenomeWeb chose to report on the World Trade Center portion of the recovery and identification efforts more than similar steps being taken at the Pentagon because we felt the scope and size of the destruction in New York merited a tighter, more exclusive editorial focus.


This by no means reflects a cavalier attitude toward the horrific events at the Pentagon. GenomeWeb has learned, and can report now, in fact, that the nearly 190 individuals listed as dead or missing at the Pentagon, 125 are Pentagon employees, according to the Defense Department. As such, many were members of the armed forces and have DNA samples stored.

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