At A Glance
Name: Virginia Barbour
Title: Editor, molecular medicine, The Lancet
Background: At The Lancet for four years following a career in medicine.
Education: DPhil, genetics of hematology, Oxford University, UK; MD, Cambridge University, UK
“We want to start a debate,” said Virginia Barbour, the molecular medicine editor at The Lancet.
She was referring to the impetus behind a controversial editorial that appears in the Sept. 20 issue of the journal questioning whether “the police [has] hijacked” people’s DNA.
The use of DNA evidence in criminal cases “is worrisome,” reads the unnamed editorial. It mentions examples in New York City, where legislators recently said that DNA can be charged with a crime to help bypass cases stalled by statutes of limitations, and in the UK, where the chairman of the nation’s Police Superintendents Association called for every person in the UK to submit their DNA fingerprints to Britain’s DNA database.
According to The Lancet, The UK DNA database contains around 2 million samples out of a population of 60 million people. By comparison, 1.4 million samples are held in the United States, which has a population of 250 million.
“What’s happening in the UK … is that the DNA databases have evolved from a purely criminal database to one that is now to one in which your DNA lands in the database if you’re simply arrested, but never charged,” Barbour told SNPtech Reporter this week. “Certainly in the UK, there’s been virtually no discussion about whether that’s the right thing to do. The police said they want to get hold of all criminally active individuals, but they don’t define how they plan to go about doing that.”
Is law enforcement abusing DNA evidence? Should governments standardize DNA-collection, -analysis, and -cataloguing protocols? And what responsibility to technology makers have to educate the public about the promise and pitfalls of DNA detection?
SNPtech Reporter spoke with Barbour by telephone this week.
To play devil’s advocate, isn’t the issue of using DNA in criminal cases — like New York City’s recent decision to charge actual DNA in sex-offense cases stalled by statutes of limitations — a legal issue rather than a medical issue? Isn’t this an issue for the legislators, lawyers, and courts?
What I think has happened is, in a way there are two issues about DNA: One is that it is evidence, and the way the police use it is simply as evidence — reliable or not reliable. The second issue, of course, is that it’s much more than evidence. When you actually take a sample, there is a debate about what happens to the sample itself [considering] how much information can be derived from that. It’s true that the debate in New York is more of a legal one, but we felt it was appropriate to comment, because the whole issue of a DNA database — the legal [issues] and the non-legal [issues] are tied up in peoples’ minds. And certainly in the medical establishment, people are thinking about them. That’s why I commented on that case.
What caused The Lancet to write the editorial? Was there a single event that had you say, ‘Right, that’s it; we need to write something,’? Was it the suggestion the editorial mentioned by Kevin Morris, chairman of the UK Police Superintendent’s Association, that every individual in the UK should have their DNA profile entered into the British database?
Yes, although there is a number of pegs, including the decision in New York City.
Most people today believe that DNA is an infallible detection technology, or as close as infallible as one can get when measured against human error. Do you think that DNA fingerprinting may be in jeopardy of falling under the same criticism that traditional fingerprinting fell under in recent years — namely, that is as much an art as it is a science?
I think DNA fingerprinting has all the same problems that any physical evidence has. Just because it is DNA doesn’t mean that it is 100 percent reliable. Obviously, one can mishandle it, misinterpret it, depending on how many repeats you analyze, for example. The chances are that if you have two DNAs that match it’s very likely you have the same person. But that’s not the same as absolute certainty. And I think that — and this is what I was trying to expand on with the point about just because a sample matches your DNA doesn’t mean that you’re the perpetrator. It means that it’s highly possible you are. It’s the same for fingerprints, really. You have to have all of the evidence surrounding it, I think. That, I think, is one thing, because DNA is such an interesting technology, in a way people think it’s so powerful, they’re slightly unwilling to think about its limitations.
You touched on this point by mentioning the use of short tandem repeat technology. Do you think that newer SNP-based platforms can overcome these issues? You’d need smaller amounts of sample, and the number of bases won’t be such a concern.
I think the [issue of] smaller [DNA] amounts is part of the problem, in a way. You hardly need any sample to make a match, nowadays. That doesn’t detract from the fact that you have to — and really, this is a legal argument — provide all of the other evidence around it. I think you would have to consider [DNA] as just evidence, and not as the final word.
Several companies manufacture or market technologies that are used by police department and immigration agencies in the United States and Europe. Do you think that, like handgun manufacturers and cigarette companies, these firms have a responsibility to encourage better legislation or education?
I think they do, actually. I think [there should be] better education about the limitations of the technology, as well as the advantages. I think nobody’s saying this is not good technology, but we have to understand [that it has] limitations.
You also write that “the general public seems willing to believe all it is told by governments and police” when it comes to using DNA as criminal evidence. Why is this, and why should the public be willing to follow The Lancet?
I think that’s what happened is that, certainly in [the UK], people are quite skeptical about health-related issues; they’re very questioning of them. In this regard, DNA is much more of a Law & Order issue, and obviously people want to believe that crimes can be solved and culprits can be found. So I think they’re not thinking with the same skepticism they think of with health issue generally. And the bottom line in all of this is public education, I think. Again, it’s in everybody’s interest because it makes people understand the limitations and value of these sorts of databases.
You end the editorial by suggesting that the British government should begin collecting DNA from all men because, as the government has stressed, 80 percent of all criminals there are men. Is that just British sarcasm?
I’m not saying that that is something one should do. On the other hand, the civil liberties group are very unhappy in the UK about a national DNA database with everyone on it. But they’re not coming up with alternatives. And the fact is, this database is there, it’s getting bigger, and we’re not really thinking about what the implications are, and what the criteria are.
This is an incredibly important debate that needs to be had. We were contacted by several Swedish news organizations, because this is a very topical discussion in Sweden after the murder of their foreign minister. And that has started a very active debate. One of the questions they asked us is were we being flippant about putting the issue of a men-only database. And the answer is, no, it’s absolutely not the case. It’s a serious challenge to people who have concerns to come up with a better idea, particularly legislators.