This article was posted on the blog Defrosting Cold Cases on March 5, 2014.
Scientific related industries have been my focus the majority of my adult life. In all that time, I don’t remember a device, product, service or method that has garnered more support in a shorter amount of time than the M-Vac System, with the possible exception of Viagra, but that is a whole other story.
The M-Vac System has, in its short time collecting forensic DNA for a living, been validated in multiple private and public labs and been used to help solve rapes, homicides, gang-related killings, molestations, armed assaults and other heinous crimes. Keep in mind that the system was originally designed to collect pathogenic bacteria off of food surfaces, biowarfare agents from the battlefield and viruses from critical areas in hospitals. Fortunately for a number of victims and their families, we were able to discover that the M-Vac is amazingly adept at collecting DNA, even from porous surfaces such as a river rock, a hoodie sweatshirt or from a victim’s skin.
Interestingly enough, this discovery came about mostly by chance when I ran into a college buddy of mine who had gone into the FBI after graduating from college. I had gone into the military so while he was busting bad guys in California I was on the other side of the country jumping out of airplanes and doing air assault missions with the 101st ABN Division. Years later we ran into each other and in the process of catching up I described the wet-vacuum collection system I was helping market to the food, pharmaceutical and defense industries. As he listened to me explain the method, he made a simple statement that didn’t fully sink in for several years. He said, “Wow, I wish I would have had something like that at some of my crime scenes.” That’s it. Fortunately, we were smart enough to take the system to Sorenson Forensics, a private lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, and ask them to validate the effectiveness of the system, and the results they obtained launched M-Vac into the forensics market.
To this day I have only represented one product that is so effective that the people testing it have said “you should be up dancing on this table this product it so good!” The point is, when it comes to collecting forensic DNA material, there are not many scenarios where I would say another method is more effective. Cheaper? Probably. Appropriate because there is ample DNA material there for a traditional method? In many cases, sure. But, more effective? Not likely. With the combination of a sterile spray impinging the substrate surface and vacuum pressure being applied simultaneously, in the vast majority of scenarios the other collection devices will not have the ability to collect the amount of DNA material that the M-Vac can. Case in point. When Sorenson Forensics initially validated the M-Vac and compared it to the swabbing method, the M-Vac collected 40 percent more DNA from a saliva stain on polyester and 88 percent more from a bloodstain on nylon fabric. The Sorenson validation was only the beginning.
Next came a series of very difficult cases that had either stalled or gone completely cold and the investigators were running out of options. In one of the first cases, a little girl had been murdered and possibly raped, and then her body had been discarded in a body of water where she lay for 8-10 hours. During that time, as every investigator knows, the DNA evidence on her and her clothing was washing away and degrading at a rapid rate. Not surprisingly, by the time she was pulled from the water and her clothing was swabbed, no suspect DNA could be detected, even with the most sensitive lab equipment and processes. Fortunately, Sorenson Forensics had an M-Vac System available and they were able to resample the victim’s underwear. Amazingly, the M-Vac was able to collect enough DNA material to generate a partial profile of the suspect and the case was able to move forward. Additional cases have seen similar results. Of course, not every case, but the bottom line is if there is DNA material on the evidence, even when it is minute amounts of touch DNA, the M-Vac System is the best tool to collect it.
Another major milestone occurred when researchers at Boston University discovered how easily and effectively an M-Vac sample could be processed using a filter method versus spinning the sample in a conical vial. Based on their findings, MSI went on to find an off-the-shelf filter apparatus that makes concentrating the M-Vac samples quick, easy and the filter is compatible with multiple extraction methods including the Qiagen, Chelex and Promega methods. During the filter apparatus verification testing, the investigators and labs who conducted it found that compared to the swabbing method in collecting saliva from cotton, the M-Vac collected much more DNA material than the swab. In fact, when sampling the material AFTER the swab, the M-Vac still pulled up 22 times more than the swab did. At least for saliva on cotton, it is fair to say that the swabbing method leaves a significant amount of potentially critical DNA material behind, and that the M-Vac System is capable of collecting a much higher percentage of the deposited DNA.
As a new collection method in forensics, DNA evidence that has been sampled using the M-Vac System has not been through a complete Daubert or Frye hearing. However, evidence has made it through a pre-trial hearing and, as far as the author has been able to discover, there were no issues with the court accepting the evidence. Of particular notice is the importance of the DNA evidence to the case, which could only be classified as critical, so had there been any issue the case would likely not be moving forward. The major advantage of the M-Vac is it is a collection device, not a diagnostic tool, so most of the stipulations in Daubert/Frye do not apply. As more cases are adjudicated and M-Vac System collected evidence is more common, this concern should dissipate, but certainly until that happens it needs to be mentioned. Sterility testing confirming that the M-Vac System is DNA and RNAse free can be provided upon request.
Clearly the data and casework supporting the M-Vac System as a necessary method that should be available to every investigator is building, but compared to all the other cases none are so compelling as the recently solved Krystal Beslanowitch case. We don’t need to reiterate all the details here as this case has received national attention, but the sheer fact that the M-Vac System was able to collect enough touch DNA material from a river rock and help solve an 18 yr old cold case is worthy of mention. Combine that with the sexual assault research data that was just presented at the AAFS by the team from UC Davis and many would say that the story of the M-Vac System deserves serious attention. The bottom line is that wet-vacuum forensic DNA collection has data, credibility and has been used to help solve cases and will continue to do so.
For more information on this new collection method please go to www.m-vac.com.
Jared Bradley is the President and CEO of M-Vac Systems, based in Sandy, Utah.