Under the Microscope – Regina Wells

Laboratories across the country are dealing with backlogs of sexual assault kits waiting to be tested.  Laws in many states have changed requiring all kits to be tested, increasing the caseload for laboratories as well as the turnaround time in which results are obtained.  The ANDE 6C Rapid DNA System can analyze an evidence sample in under two hours; however, sexual assault kits are challenging due to mixtures of the victim and suspect’s DNA.

In her presentation at ISHI, Regina Wells (DNA Database Supervisor, Kentucky State Police DNA Database) will describe the Pilot Program of 100 Rapid DNA Kits provided to sexual assault nurse examiners in three jurisdictions in Kentucky for collection during forensic sexual assault exams. We chatted with Regina to discuss the challenges that exist when tackling the sexual assault backlog and considerations that need to be addressed when incorporating a Rapid DNA workflow.



Regina, thanks for talking with us today. What challenges exist for labs when trying to tackle the sexual assault backlog?

There is now a focus on testing all sexual assault kits.  Legislative mandates such as in our state has led to problems of manpower.  Just simply not having enough people to keep up with the workload.  Sexual assault evidence is typically complicated usually resulting in difficult mixtures that are time-consuming to interpret.


How can the ANDE 6C Rapid DNA System help to alleviate some of these challenges?

The ANDE 6C is much faster than traditional testing.  There is a pre-treatment step prior to loading samples on the instrument in an effort to separate the female and male DNA.  Once the samples are loaded the instrument handles the rest of the analysis allowing an analyst to work on other things.  The entire process from beginning to end takes about three hours.


Can you briefly describe the pilot program that your lab participated in?

We agreed to test 100 sexual assault kits using the pre-treatment step and the ANDE 6C.  At the time a traditional sexual assault kit was taken, two additional swabs were collected for the Rapid DNA kit.  The Rapid kits came straight to the laboratory while the traditional kit went to law enforcement to be submitted to the laboratory through their evidence technicians.  Rapid kits were tested as soon as they came into the laboratory and any suspect profiles obtained were searched against a copy of the state database in the FAIRS software.


How did you become involved with this program?

Our laboratory had worked with ANDE previously on another project, involving a Kentucky law enforcement agency’s crime scene unit.  During that project mock crime scene samples were tested to determine how the instrument performed and evaluate collection methods using the ANDE swabs.


Were there any surprises that came up throughout the testing?

Due to the nature of sexual assault evidence and the number of mixtures that are obtained I did not think that the pre-treatment step would be successful.  However to my surprise it actually worked very well.


Are there any additional considerations that need to be addressed when incorporating a Rapid DNA workflow? What advice would you have for other jurisdictions who are considering implementing Rapid DNA?

The company has optimized their sample collection procedures to be successful on their instrument so it’s important to follow them.  Our laboratory had different methods to collect samples from gum or cigarette butts for example but we obtained the best results when following their guidance.

Obviously we used the instrument to process sexual assault kits but I’ve also processed bone, tissue, blood, and offender samples on the ANDE 6C.  There are a wide range of uses so laboratories shouldn’t limit themselves in its application.


What has been your biggest takeaway from this experience?

One of the big keys for us was including our law enforcement agencies in the conversation.  Helping them to understand not only what the instrument was capable of doing but also its limitations.  Not every kit was going to be successful and we wanted to manage expectations. Once they started seeing results they became very engaged in the process and appreciated having the information early in their investigation.  It demonstrated to us that using Rapid DNA technology can help us assist law enforcement in their on-going investigation rather than just preparing cases for court.


As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of ISHI, do you have any predictions for what the future holds or do you have any fond memories of using older technologies/techniques?

When I first started at the laboratory I was trained to perform slot blot and poured gels for the 377.  I could never have imagined that we would be talking about massively parallel sequencing or forensic genealogy.  This is a field where you are always learning whether its new chemistries or instrumentation just like the ANDE 6Ct.  It’s one of the things I love about my job.



What’s one thing that others may not know about you?

My son Jonathan has Down syndrome.  When the doctor told us he actually tried to give me a lesson about DNA.  I had never known anyone with Down syndrome before Jonathan.  My husband and I were nervous at first about what the future would hold for him, but now we know how blessed we are to be his parents.  He has given me a great lesson in what people with disabilities are capable of accomplishing and I hope to always be his biggest advocate.  And he’s pretty cute too!