DNA-collecting agencies use genetic data for research



Bill Lott

Bill Lott


Katie Hasson

Katie Hasson



Isabelle Altman



A strand of DNA analyzed in a rape kit from 1990 was the key piece of evidence in Starkville Police Department's 28-year-old investigation into the murders of Betty Jones and Kathryn Crigler.


But until last year, that DNA hadn't matched to anyone, leading some members of Jones' family to start an online petition for the Mississippi Attorney General's Office to look into whether investigators could use familial DNA -- DNA obtained from suspects' family members -- to try and identify suspects through relatives.


"We strongly believe (familial DNA) can be the next step in solving this case," Jones' step-grandson, Simon Jones, told The Dispatch in August 2018.



Less than two months later, Rienzi resident Michael Devaughn was charged with Jones' and Crigler's murders after investigators matched DNA taken from one of his cigarette butts in a separate arrest to the DNA profile from Crigler's rape kit.


Authorities have not said whether familial DNA played any part in Devaughn's arrest.


But the idea of using familial DNA struck a chord with the case investigator, SPD Sgt. Bill Lott. Before Devaughn's arrest, Lott sent the DNA to California-based Parabon Lab, which had been assisting law enforcement agencies throughout the country with cold cases.


But in a world where increasing numbers of people are voluntarily submitting their DNA to ancestry companies for analysis, some legislators and activists are questioning the ethics of police matching a suspect's DNA to that of a family member -- or of companies collecting and sharing that information at all.


"People should be aware that their DNA contains really sensitive information about themselves and about everyone that they're related to," said Katie Hasson, the program director on genetic justice with the California-based Center for Genetics and Society, which lobbies for regulation of genetic information. "So when you make your decision to send your DNA off to one of these companies to try to find out more about your family background ... you're not just revealing your own genetic information but also all of your family members."



Using the data


Since the advent of companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, millions of people have submitted their DNA to discover their ancestry. But that DNA can be used for more than piecing together family trees.


Customers of 23andMe can choose whether to have their DNA used for genetic research, company spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said in an email to The Dispatch. About 80 percent of customers have agreed, leading the company to publish research in conjunction with Ivy League universities and the National Institute of Health on health issues and even human origins.


"23andMe has published more than 130 studies on a variety of conditions, from motion sickness and skin disease, to various types of cancer," Crenshaw said. "23andMe also conducts research on how genetics affect you in your daily life, like whether or not you're genetically predisposed to be more of a morning person, and associations with genetics and allergies."


She added 23andMe has never shared data with law enforcement.


However, GEDmatch.com, an online database that collects DNA, notes in its privacy policies that DNA results may be shared with law enforcement in order to comply with warrants and subpoenas, and that DNA obtained in the investigation of a violent crime may be among the raw data already submitted to the database.


Hasson noted private companies such as 23andMe have some incentive to keep customers' information private, but there is little oversight. The companies are the ones determining what they do with the data and with whom they share it.


"Those privacy protections are at the company's initiative and they can change them at any time," she said. "... It's not the same as health information that you have at the doctor's office where it's regulated under HIPPA regulations."


Currently federal law states neither employers nor health insurance companies can discriminate against an individual based on genetic information, Hasson said -- a law which doesn't cover life insurance or long-term care insurance companies. She also said with DNA technology advancing so rapidly, there's no way to know how that data will be used in the future.


"Once your DNA info is out there, it's out there," Hasson said. "And it's not something that you can change like your credit card number or even your Social Security number. ... This genetic information is unique because it tells something potentially about your family background, potentially about your current or future health and those things about your children now and in the future."





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