The number of molecular biologists worldwide has been estimated in the hundreds of thousands — not bad for what most bioinformatics companies see as the target market for their products and services. But those firms may be missing out on an additional potential market of up to 100,000 sales per year. A small bioinformatics firm in Fairborn, Ohio, may have beaten the rest of the industry to an untapped customer base hungry for bioinformatics expertise: defense attorneys.
“Crime laboratories around the country are largely agents of prosecutorial agencies,” said Dan Krane, founder of Forensic Bioinformatics and associate professor of biological sciences at Wright State University. “Members of the defense bar find that they’re confronted by a prosecutor saying they have damning DNA evidence against their client, and the defense attorney finds himself saying, ‘Well, how do I know?’…What the defense bar is looking for is somebody who can look at this evidence and give them an objective interpretation, and, in some instances, alternative interpretations that are also supportable by the evidence that the prosecutor and the crime labs may not be venturing forward.”
While prosecutors can rely on crime labs outfitted with Applied Biosystems Genetic Analyzers, software, and armies of experts who know how to use the technology, most defense attorneys lack the resources to hire full-time experts to re-analyze DNA evidence, Krane said. The result is that fewer than 1 percent of the 100,000 cases tried every year that use DNA evidence are reviewed by the defense, which raises the specter of wrongful convictions.
“Part of what’s going on is that those defense attorneys who are assisting those individuals aren’t aware of the fact that DNA evidence is somewhat assailable, that there are opportunities for alternative interpretations,” said Krane, an authority on forensic DNA analysis who has testified as an expert witness in 39 criminal trials since 1991.
Forensic Bioinformatics — a Wright State spinout — began offering its services to defense attorneys a year and a half ago. The tiny company, which only has one full-time employee and two part-timers, now reviews up to 20 cases a month, and that number is doubling every six months. “I fully expect that a year from now we’ll be looking at hundreds of cases a month instead of dozens,” said Krane, who added that he’s beginning to see some interest from law enforcement crime labs as well who want “to make their output better, more reliable, better organized, and more understandable to people.”
The company’s core technology is a software platform called Genophiler that automates the use of ABI’s GeneScan and Genotyper software. The platform, developed by Wright State computational biologist and company co-founder Michael Raymer, has been tweaked to incorporate Krane’s years of experience and “knowledge of what issues can be important and need to be looked for in each case.”
The company’s clients provide the electronic data from the crime lab on CD, then Forensic Bioinformatics runs it through its platform and reanalyzes it. The company then provides a report that more often than not contains information not previously released by the crime lab. “Fairly routinely, we’ll find evidence of additional contributors, or indications that samples have been mishandled or perhaps contaminated in ways that often give rise to alternative interpretations of the evidence,” Krane said.
The firm is currently reviewing the evidence for the murder of five-year-old Samantha Runnion in Southern California, as well as DNA for one of the Washington, DC, sniper suspects.
Krane said that Forensic Bioinformatics has relied on fiscal “bootstrapping” to make ends meet since it was founded, but the approach has paid off. The company sees a profit every month now, and is looking to hire a few additional full-time employees to keep pace with the demand for its services. Krane, along with Raymer and the three other principals in the company — forensic DNA analysis experts Bill Thompson and Simon Ford and Wright State bioinformaticist Travis Doom — do not draw salaries yet.
“It’s sweat equity,” Krane said. “I still can’t get over that we’re paying for everybody’s salary.”