Gene Codes: Still Searching September 16, 2004 - News

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Gene Codes: Still Searching

By Melissa Kruse
Bio-IT World

Boston (09/16/04)—What took just seconds to destroy is still consuming software engineers and scientists three years later.

On the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 disaster, Gene Codes continues to apply its Mass Fatality Identification System (M-FISys) database to identify the victims at Ground Zero. But the pace of identification is much slower now. And several members of the teams in Gene Codes' Michigan headquarters and New York City assigned the grisly task of identifying the victims have succumbed to the mental and physical anguish, moving them to resign.

One year ago, the programmers at Gene Codes finished version 6.03 of M-FISys, the forensic identification program that cross-references genotype data from victims' remains with personal effects and relatives' DNA. The program is now at version 7.09. So far, 1,521 of the 2,749 victims have been officially identified by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in New York.

IDENTIFICATION: "Nothing left but hard problems," says Gene Codes CEO Howard Cash.
But it has been slow progress for the OCME. Only about 40 victims have been officially identified during the past year because the recovered samples are severely degraded. The recent identification of a firefighter raised the provisional found count to 1,561. One year ago, the OCME estimated the casualty count at 2,780, but as cases of fraud and confusion over foreigners' whereabouts have been resolved, the number has dropped to 2,749. Of the 19,914 body parts found, 9,000 have been identified.

Remains of the Day
The most badly damaged remains have been saved for last. "Early in the project, if we found ourselves with an easy identification to make, of course we'd do those first," says Howard Cash, CEO of Gene Codes. "We'd never hold off from returning remains to someone's family in order to work on a more challenging identification, but eventually we hit a wall when there was nothing left but hard problems."

Cash says three of his employees left the company in part because of the stress of perfecting M-FISys. "This is a burnout project. A lot of people have left the medical examiner's office too. The subject matter makes the work extra stressful and so sad," Cash says. "You can never make mistakes — as a software company, you never want to make mistakes — but knowing the potential catastrophic impact of an error on a family adds pressure."

Mike Hennessey is Gene Codes' World Trade Center identification systems project leader. Hennessey, who supervises a team at the OCME and is an M-FISys user himself, says that emotions aside, it has just been hard work. "Each piece is a separate case, and there are 20,000 pieces. I meet with families to go over their case, and I have to explain why some cases haven't been successful. That's not easy."

Today, only four of the original Gene Codes team is working full time on M-FISys. Ten staffers work full-time on the project. Other programmers are back on Sequencher, the company's flagship DNA analysis program, which has taken a back seat during the past three years. "We've finally released a Mac version of Sequencher for OS X," Cash says. "I think people think our company is working less, even though we've doubled in size."

Sept. 2003 issue profiled Gene Codes
Hennessey, who worked on the Sequencher team before Sept. 11, says of the many features added to M-FISys over the past year, his favorite is the one that helps confirm the chain of custody for reference samples, such as toothbrushes. "It helps us verify who a particular toothbrush really belongs to."

International Rescue
Gene Codes has drawn worldwide interest over M-FISys. Cash is guarded about the topic of Gene Codes' potential involvement in the aftermath of the Madrid terrorist bombings, and will only say, "The Spanish authorities have a world-class scientific infrastructure and were completely capable of doing all the needed forensic work following the March 11 bombings without need of any extra-national assistance."

The State Department recently asked Gene Codes to help investigate the disappearance of hundreds of women in Juarez, Mexico. Over the past 11 years, some 370 young women have been kidnapped and presumably murdered. Gene Codes will build a system to match the remains of the women with their personal effects. "They're poor women with no political connections, so investigations don't really go anywhere," Cash says. "People want their daughters back. We're in a position where we can make a significant contribution to a real humanitarian crisis."

Photo of Cash By: Blake Discher

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September 16, 2004