ICMP in the Philippines

ICMP's FSD Training Coordinator Dr. Zoran Budimlija with FSS 2015 hosts

According to the World Risk Index[1] the Philippines is in third place on the list of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, after Vanuatu and Tonga and ahead of Guatemala and Bangladesh[2]. The country experiences more than 20 typhoons annually, yet it does not have a disaster victim identification protocol fully in place. As a result, a large number of human remains, including those from Typhoon Sendong (lligan and Cagayan in December 2011), Typhoon Pablo (Davao, December 2012) and Typhoon Haiyan (Tacloban, November 2013) are still waiting to be identified, pending financial and logistical support In addition, there is no legal framework for the use of DNA in criminal trials: more than 90% of convictions, including capital convictions, are based on witness testimony.

Recognizing the need to facilitate scientific applications in the Philippines justice system and Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process, faculty and students of the University of the Philippines Diliman, Institute of Biology, in collaboration with the Philippine Genome Center, the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute, and the Philippine-American Educational Foundation Fulbright Commission, organized two major events in Manila in April 2015:

  • A public symposium entitled “The Next Generation/the Now Generation Forensic Science”, for forensic scientists, lawyers, professionals in the medical sector, NGOs, students and the general public, in order to disseminate information about the use of forensic science globally and the current status of forensic science in the Philippines (7th April); and
  • A three-day hands-on special training seminar on DNA analysis, at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Natural Sciences Research Institute. The seminar covered methodologies, such as low copy number analysis of trace evidence, DNA mixtures deconvolution and the use of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies to increase the likelihood of identification of people involved in crimes and those who have died in disasters (8th-10th April).

ICMP’s Forensic Science Division Training Coordinator, Dr. Zoran M. Budimlija, was one of three people from outside the Philippines invited to speak at both events. The other speakers from abroad were Dr. Mecki Prinz of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York[3], and Dr. Marie Allen, professor at the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology, Medical Genetics and Genomics, University of Uppsalla, Sweden.[4]

The 2nd Annual Forensic Science Symposium was held at the new Institute of Biology in the UP Diliman National Science Complex. It focused on discussion of the latest developments in the field of forensic science and the importance of this field in mass disaster victim identification and familial relationship determination. It also covered the status of forensic science in the Philippines and its potential role in national development. Among approximately 300 participants were representatives of the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police, NGOs, legal and medical practitioners and students of biology, medicine and dentistry, as well as scientists from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology Institute of Biotechnology and representatives of bio-technology companies.

In her address, Dr Prinz spoke about the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, describing the importance of transparency and respect when dealing with bereaved families and the value of interagency collaboration. She stated that, as of March 2015, a total of 1,637 of the 2,753 victims reported missing have been identified, the vast majority exclusively through DNA testing. Dr. Prinz discussed logistics, policies, collaboration and approach in the ongoing project of identifying human remains following the 9/11 attack, which has set precedents in a number of ways.

Dr. Budimlija gave an overview of ICMP’s status, history, policies, and past and present projects. He began by noting that on 15th December 2014, the Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, and Luxembourg signed a Framework Agreement that grants a new legal status to the ICMP, and quoted ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger’s observation that “For decades the problem of missing persons has been treated as a humanitarian issue, or as a disaster-relief issue, or as a war-emergency issue – but it is now recognized as a systemic global challenge that demands a coherent and effective global response.” He explained ICMP’s new position in the world of international organizations and its mandate, especially aspects of technical assistance to governments in different countries that need help in the identification of missing persons on a large scale. He stressed the fact that as part of this assistance, ICMP maintains the worlds largest specialized DNA laboratory system dedicated exclusively to identifying missing persons. Dr Budimlija described the policies and procedures that ensure absolute security and protection of sensitive data at the biological, technological and administrative levels. He also spoke about capacity building, assistance to international and domestic courts, and, in detail, about the DNA-led human identification approach that ICMP introduced in 2000. After explaining ICMP’s technical organization and scientific work-flow, he alluded to the organization’s international projects, in the Western Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, Chile, Norway, South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, USA, Thailand, Haiti, and the Philippines.

Assistant Secretary Lila Ramos-Shahani[5] outlined the current Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) system in the Philippines, and described government plans to strengthen the system. She also discussed the link between disaster and development, the DRRM Law, and issues connected to the government’s response to Typhoon Yolanda.

Speaking on the theme of “A Molecular Approach to Forensic Science and Ethnicity in the Philippines”, Ms. Sheila Estacio Dennis described the current project to expand the Philippine population databases, utilizing NGS platforms. Ms. Estacio-Dennis said the project will help to answer questions on the origin, relationships, history, structure and migration patterns of human populations in the Philippines, which has more than 7,100 islands with 17 politically defined regions and over 110 ethno-linguistic groups.

Dr Allen discussed the significance of Next Generation Sequencing in forensic DNA testing. She explained how compromised biological samples are more difficult to handle as they have been subjected to harsh environmental conditions leading to DNA degradation. She went on to describe the novel NGS marker panel designed in Uppsala (Halo Genomix, acquired by Agilent) – HaloPlex. This panel allows simultaneous analysis of 10 Short Tandem Repeat (STR) markers and the entire mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genome, as well as 386 Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs chosen were located on autosomal and sex chromosomes (X and Y), and some of them could provide information about visible characteristics (such as a person’s eye, hair or skin color), as well as genetic ancestry and geographic origin – Ancestry Informative Markers (AIM). To test this system, aged and degraded samples were successfully analyzed (including the historical cases of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Carin Göring (1888-1931), and Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373)).

Dr. Maria Corazon de Ungria spoke about the current forensic science environment in the Philippines, emphasizing the need to reform the way in which cases are dealt with in court and the way in which suspected offenders are apprehended during criminal investigations. She stressed that new technologies, especially NGS, have increased the amount of genetic information generated from crime scene evidence, as well as from post-mortem remains of unidentified persons. The absence of DNA legislation in the Philippines prevents the establishment and security of criminal databases, so the use of DNA evidence is not currently being maximized. In addition, there is an urgent need to revise applicable university courses, to incorporate relevant science topics in curricula, while improving education for future law enforcement personnel, administrators, legislators, lawyers and judges in the Philippines.

Around 40 people participated in the hands-on training for DNA forensic scientists on 8th-10th April at the Natural Sciences Research Institute of UP Diliman, including participants from the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine National Commission on Human Rights, and students from the Institute of Biology, Forensic Biology class.

During the three-day seminar, Dr. Prinz lectured on Current Methods in Forensic Genetics, STR Mixture Interpretation and the Probabilistic Evaluation of Mixtures with Drop-in or Drop-out.

Dr. Allen lectured on Historical Forensic Genetics Case Studies, andHaloPlex and MiSeq NGS for STR, SNP and mtDNA with Data Interpretation Exercise, and Dr. Budimlija lectured on Approaches to Mass Disaster Victim Identification, and Case Studies Presentation (related to Dr. Budimlija’s previous work at the New York City Office Chief Medical Examiner). Dr Budimilja’s first lecture was two-hour presentation on the principles and modules of ICMP’s Integrated Data Management System (iDMS), which aroused keen interest among audience members and led to a very live discussion.

Presentations were also given by Katherine R. Ramirez of MedTest, Jerice Monge of DIAMED, and Michael Hennessey of GeneCodes.

 

1] World Risk Index, compiled by the UN University for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and featured in the 2013 World Risk Report (WRR 2013) published by the Alliance Development Works/Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (BEH),

[2] http://worldriskreport.entwicklung-hilft.de/uploads/media/WorldRiskReport_2013_online_01.pdf

[3] Dr. Prinz is a veteran of the 9/11 WTC Human Identification Project and former Director of the Department of Forensic Biology, New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

[4] Professor Allen is one of the pioneers of the application of NGS in the identification of ancient bones in Europe.

 

[5] Ms. Ramos-Shahani is the Head of Communications of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction (HDRP) Cabinet Cluster, which covers 26 government agencies dealing with poverty and development. She is also the spokesperson of the Advocacy and Communications Group of the Inter-Agency Council against (Human) Trafficking (IACAT).