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UNT shoulders important task

The University of North Texas Health Science Center is about to embark on a project that could eventually help identify thousands of people long missing in Libya and, perhaps, help some of their family members find closure.

It was recently announced that forensic scientists from the UNT Health Science Center will train Libyan scientists to identify human remains found in mass graves after the uprising of 2011.

Arthur Eisenberg, chairman and professor of forensic and investigative genetics at the health science center, said he was not aware of another similar-size project to date, estimating that it could take years to complete.

Forensic anthropologists are uncertain about the total number of remains recovered, but the count is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000, Eisenberg said. Some remains could be more than 40 years old because the people are believed to have gone missing during the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, which poses additional challenges.

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

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, and Eisenberg said the facility is expected to be completed by 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.

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.

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

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

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.

It is important work, and the health science center is well-equipped to do the job. Rhonda Roby, associate director and project coordinator of forensic and investigative genetics, for example, is known for her DNA work. Roby was called in to help identify victims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and helped identify the remains of 258 firefighters.

We commend the UNT Health Science Center and its staff members for their contributions and achievements.

This latest project may be one of the largest undertaken, but each one, no matter how small, is important, just like each of the individuals who are eventually identified.