UNT center to train scientists

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Photos courtesy of the University of North Texas Health Science Center
Rhonda Roby, associate director and project coordinator of forensic and investigative genetics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, shows how a section of the bone is cut to extract DNA.
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FORT WORTH — Forensic scientists from the University of North Texas Health Science Center will train Libyan scientists to identify the human remains found in mass graves after the uprising of 2011.

“It’s an immense project,” said Arthur Eisenberg, chairman and professor of forensic and investigative genetics at the health science center. “I’m not aware of a project that size to date. It’s going to take years and years.”

Forensic anthropologists are still trying to figure out the number of remains, but the count is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000, he said.

“How many people ultimately need to be identified in Libya?” Eisenberg said. “No one knows.”

And the remains could be more than 40 years old because the people are believed to have gone missing during the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

“That poses additional challenges,” Eisenberg said.

The UNT Center for Human Identification’s involvement in the project began in the fall of 2012.

UNT has already trained several scientists from Malaysia, Thailand, India, the Middle East, South Africa and Mexico.

In 2010, the health science center received a grant to establish the Center for Forensic Excellence to help train DNA analysts from other countries.

The center offers four classes a year and the classes are about a month long. Then the scientists go back to their countries and train more scientists.

The Libyan project is being funded by Repsol, a Spanish-based oil company, and Life Technologies.

The oil company donated $2.5 million to the Libyan government for a laboratory.

Eisenberg said the facility is expected to be complete by the summer.

If a country was left to develop its own facility from scratch, it would take two to three years, he said.

The first four Libyan scientists will come to the UNT Health Science Center near the end of the year to be trained on the procedures and the equipment they will be using, Eisenberg said.

“The most important thing is the reference samples,” he said.

A reference sample requires taking a swab of the family members’ inner cheeks.

It takes two to three reference samples per missing person, he said.

Eisenberg mentions a case involving a 17-year-old girl missing in New York. Years after her disappearance, the girl’s niece, who never knew her aunt, gave a reference sample and the lab was able to identify the missing girl, he said.

Right now, Libyan scientists are trying to get families to give reference samples, which could be a challenge because many Libyans are afraid of the government, he said.

Once the operation is set up in Libya, probably sometime next year, two scientists from UNT will go there to make sure everything is working properly, he said.

Since the Center for Human Identification became operational in 2002, it has helped law enforcement agencies as well as other countries, including Chile.

Rhonda Roby, associate director and project coordinator of forensic and investigative genetics at the health science center, received the initial request from the government of Chile.

Roby is known for her DNA work. She was called in to help identify remains at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks.

She helped identify the remains of 258 firefighters from the World Trade Center.

A large portion had just donated to a blood drive, she said, which helped experts identify them. Chile shipped the remains and the reference samples to UNT to have its forensic scientists identify them. The Center for Human Identification built the country a database, Eisenberg said.

In Libya’s case, there is a mass of bones to go through, which makes it a more difficult process, he said.

The scientists only take a small portion of the bone because the goal is to give the remains back to the family intact.

Long bones in the arms and legs are the best places to extract DNA, he said.

It takes between one and three months to identify one person’s remains, Eisenberg said.

“Every remain is different,” he said.

RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is rmehlhaff@dentonrc.com .


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