The head of the Kenya Medical Research Institute’s DNA testing laboratory Eva Aluvala spoke to Christabel Ligami on the progress of forensic research and testing, three years on.
What research are you involved in currently?
We are conducting biotech forensics with the University of California, researching on how hair protein can be used to extract DNA for identification.
This has been tested in the US and has been in extensive use, especially in the cases where people doubt or dispute identity.
Hairs are common in crime scenes and can be used to link a criminal or victim to a crime scene. The DNA in hair is very informative, but may usually be absent or degraded.
This project seeks to use proteins as an alternative to DNA to link someone to their hair. Using current technologies, changes and differences in hair of different individuals can be identified.
Such differences in protein can be used in tracing ancestry and as a sure-fire way to identify people. We hope to develop this technology as an additional forensic tool.
What else do you do in the DNA lab?
We conduct paternity and maternity tests to determine the biological parents of a tested child. We also conduct forensic DNA testing, where we link unsolved crimes to suspects, violent crimes.
We work closely with the Government Chemist, especially during large scale disasters, the latest being Moi Girls High School fire last year.
We collaborated with the Government Chemist on DNA forensic identification of the students who were burnt. We are the only institution offering the testing service privately in Kenya. Other than the Government Chemist, which provides the service for the government, no other private institution in the country has a laboratory to conduct such tests here and ship their samples abroad for testing.
What progress has the region made in forensic research and analysis?
We have many experts in the field of forensics, but there are more people in training and many more are now getting interested in it. At Kemri, there are only three forensic analysts/researchers, but we have been training others in the universities across the country and the region.
The latest training was in Somalia’s Puntland where we helped the Kenya Defence Forces set up a forensic laboratory and trained their people on forensic analysis. There is dire need for forensics services, but we still do not have enough experts in this field.
How different is the Kemri laboratory from the others in the country?
Forensic tests are standardised globally. The difference is in the handling of samples. In some cases, samples are mishandled and mixed up, which is how you get either conflicting or disputed results. This can happen anywhere.
The Kemri laboratory is a walk-in-walk-out centre. There is no other laboratory in the country, other than the Government Chemist, that conducts paternity tests or DNA analysis in the country at a fee of $200. K
Kemri is a non-profit institution and the fee is nominal, for purposes of sustaining the service.
It takes between two and five working days to receive the results of a paternity test. Other institutions collect samples and send them abroad for testing.
What are your future plans?
We are looking at working with relevant institutions to initiate a forensic DNA database in Kenya.
This would be useful in solving crimes such as rape and murder as well as identifying missing persons. Currently, there is no forensic DNA database in Kenya.
Even the Nairobi City Mortuary disposes of unidentified bodies without keeping a DNA record. Having such a database in place could assist relatives of missing persons to have closure even in the absence of a body.
What challenges do you face in research and analysis?
Forensics is not a priority in the area of health research in the country and therefore it is hard to secure grants to conduct research and offer more services to even more people.
Forensic laboratories are expensive to run and penetrating the market is hard for those who do it privately. So they end up making returns that cannot sustain the running of such a laboratory.