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Genetics Experts Join Together to Support Efforts To Identify Remaining Hurricane Katrina Victims

Image of DNA Double Helix Wed., March 29, 2006 — A multi-institution team of experts, coordinated by geneticists from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is supporting efforts to identify more than 70 bodies still unidentified in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"I'm very proud of how the genetics community has joined together in this time of continuing need. It is inspiring to see how these professionals are giving of their time and expertise to help families through the difficult process of finding the loved ones that Katrina so cruelly took away," said NHGRI Scientific Director Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D.

When Katrina struck on August 29 and unleashed devastating floods, it claimed more than 1,200 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many of the victims already have been identified and their remains claimed by their families. However, more than 70 bodies remain unidentified, including bodies recovered shortly after the floodwaters receded and bodies recently recovered as debris from the hurricane has been removed from the hardest hit areas of New Orleans.

Using experience gained in DNA analysis of human remains after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, epidemiologists, clinical geneticists and genetic counselors are supporting Louisiana state officials in the task of collecting data on family relationships, which is a key step in the complex process of DNA testing being used to match recovered remains to the list of more than 1,100 people still missing in Katrina's wake.

Joan Bailey-Wilson, Ph.D., co-chief of the NHGRI's Inherited Disease Research Branch, has been coordinating efforts of more than 70 genetics professionals who have offered to help the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory in its management of the identification process and collection of DNA (cheek swab) samples from family members of the missing. These professionals come from more than 30 U.S. medical institutions and private practices across the United States.

Along with Elizabeth Pugh, Ph.D., M.P.H., head of statistical genetics at the Center for Inherited Disease Research, an NIH-funded initiative based at the Johns Hopkins' Bayview campus in Baltimore, Dr. Bailey-Wilson serves on a panel to advise crime lab staff and the coroners' offices in both states responsible for identifying the dead and missing. It is a repeat role for the two statistical geneticists, who also served on a panel for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks five years ago. Other NIH personnel serving on both advisory committees include: Leslie Biesecker, M.D., of NHGRI's Genetic Disease Research Branch, and Stephen Sherry, Ph.D., and Lisa Forman, Ph.D., both of the National Library of Medicine's National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

"Pulling together the infrastructure - from experts in various disciplines and from medical centers across the country - is a skill that forensics experts learned from 9/11. Most of us hoped it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but sadly it was not," said Dr. Bailey-Wilson, who is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Many medical and dental records normally used to match bodies with names of the missing were destroyed, leaving few clues behind as to whose remains were found. Even DNA-facilitated identification has proved to be a challenge. Personal items, such as toothbrushes and hairbrushes that could contain saliva and hair samples useful in DNA testing, were often contaminated or destroyed by flooding. Making matters worse, family members whose DNA is required to make a match were displaced by the hurricane, making contact difficult and adding delays to interviews and appointments for genetic testing.

"One of the lessons learned from 9/11 was that talking to the families about the missing is skilled detective work, which is best done by qualified genetics clinicians and genetic counselors who know the right questions to ask based on the information needed to fill in the family pedigree," said Dr. Pugh, who is also an assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, observing that, in today's world of blended families and multiple marriages, not all siblings are biologically related to one another.

Most of the genetics professionals are being sent to the Louisiana Family Assistance Center in Baton Rouge, La., where investigative operations are based. Once there, they interview relatives by phone to help construct complex family trees of individuals who are presumed lost, a crucial first step in the identification of the dead using DNA testing.

In DNA identification testing, a person's unique genetic makeup is matched against other previously known DNA samples, such as stored blood or material taken from toothbrushes or hair combs. If no known samples of DNA exist, DNA is obtained from family members in order to look for unique patterns of genetic traits, or markers, specific to the individual based on the patterns found in the family. In the case of the 2005 hurricane victims, ultimately, the state coroner makes an official identification using results from the DNA analysis alone or in combination with other information, such as distinguishing physical features or the location where the body was found.

Compiling a genetic picture of the family requires an accurate construction of the family tree, which can be built using biological information obtained from siblings, parents, grandparents or cousins.

"This is not an easy task. Taking down the correct information, correctly assessing the nature of relationships, and establishing which relatives are willing to donate DNA is a very sensitive and time-consuming process, especially for large, extended families. But it is a task that needs to be done so that families can finally get some answers about their missing loved ones," said Barbara Biesecker, M.S., director of the Johns Hopkins/NHGRI Genetic Counseling Training Program, who has traveled to Louisiana with two groups of genetic counseling graduate students.

Tracking this process for each missing person and each recovered body involves tremendous attention to detail, added Dr. Pugh, who helped the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory's DNA unit set up one of the computer systems and protocols that will guide the identification process. She notes that the whole identification effort follows strict confidentially rules to protect people's privacy.

A person's DNA contains all the genetic information passed down from their parents, but slightly different - though mostly similar - combinations are passed along to siblings. Statistical methods are used to compare and match DNA samples to determine how likely it is that genetic markers found in an unidentified, deceased person fit into the pattern of genetic markers observed in relatives of someone reported missing.

According to Pugh, genetic testing is made easier by commercially available computer software programs to analyze DNA testing results. These programs can statistically match an individual with genetic material from the same person or with that of family members using as few as 16 unique genetic markers. Additionally, NCBI staff are deploying their innovative software programs to help assure the quality and accuracy of the DNA results upon which identifications are being made.

"The work of volunteers and staff at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center and the State Police Crime Lab is helping these families, but it is also bridging the gap between genetic and forensic medicine to help make our country better prepared to deal with a massive disaster of this nature," said Dr. Bailey-Wilson, who like Dr. Pugh has ties to the Gulf region, where both studied and worked for several years.

Other NHGRI staff and fellows who have traveled to Louisiana to help include: Joie Davis, R.N., Genetics Nurse Practitioner; Don Hadley, M.S., Associate Investigator and Genetic Counselor; Michael Kayser, M.D., Medical Genetics Fellow; Trish Magyari, M.S., Genetic Counselor; Melissa Merideth, M.D., Medical Genetics Fellow; Holly Peay, M.S., Genetic Counselor; Julie Sapp, M.S., Genetic Counselor; and Jennifer Sloan, M.S., Genetic Counselor.


Geoff Spencer

David March
Johns Hopkins Medicine
(410) 955-1534

Last updated: August 01, 2012