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Helping DNA Detectives

July 15, 2004

By James Bagnall
The Ottawa Citizen Tech Weekly
Published: July 15, 2004

Partnered with the RCMP, rising Ottawa software firm Anjura makes strides in forensic biotechnology

For nearly two decades, DNA analysis has provided police investigators with an exceptional tool for identifying criminals and ruling out suspects.

Improvements in the science now allow forensic specialists to extract DNA – every person’s unique biological signature – from evidence no bigger than the head of a pin. But the most impressive strides have come with the creation of huge DNA databases equipped with software programs capable of exploring the relationship between known criminals and evidence obtained at crime scenes.

After four years of operation, Canada’s national DNA data bank has accumulated more than 61,000 profiles of convicted offenders – a total that is rising by 400 per week. A separate list of DNA profiles taken from crime scenes now tops 15,400.

Cross-matching the two lists has allowed investigators to connect hundreds of offenders such as Eastman to myriad crime scenes.

Not only is there greater co-ordination between police forces when it comes to formatting and collecting crime data, but the data are being processed far more quickly – thus eliminating backlogs in some jurisdictions and giving police more time to try to solve cold cases. The new technologies could also one day allow crime-scene investigators to instantly query DNA data banks for possible suspects.

Anjura Technology, a relatively low-profile Ottawa software firm, is playing a surprisingly large role in helping police forces take advantage of the latest advances in DNA technology.

Its flagship software product – known as Sample Tracking and Control Systems or STACS for short – speeds DNA samples through an automated system for analyzing and storing them.

Anjura jointly developed STACS with the RCMP in 1999 and has since sold the software to police services units in Florida, Illinois and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“We’re building a base with these three U.S. customers,” says Anjura CEO Chris Nuttall, “We closed the Illinois deal a couple of months ago and we’ve got four or five other U.S. clients in the pipeline,” adds British-born Nuttall.

The company estimates that revenues derived from the sale of STACS software and services will hit anywhere between $2 million and $5 million this fiscal year and could begin rising rapidly after that.

That would still amount to less than ten per cent of the company’s sales this year, but the potential opportunity for STACS looks substantial. With several of the top U.S. police agencies already on board, Anjura’s marketing efforts have some substance.

In addition, as DNA sampling becomes more accepted as a credible forensic tool, the number and type of criminals covered is expected to increase. For the moment, only those convicted of the most serious crimes in Canada are compelled to give DNA samples.

Anjura is also busy creating ways of collecting more types of crime-scene samples. Its STACS program was originally designed to process DNA samples from convicted offenders. More recently, Anjura has developed a ‘break and enter’ software program that automates the processing of crime scene samples taken from cigarette butts, blood or clothing, for example. This fall, the firm expects to begin work on a new product aimed at automating the processing of DNA collected from rape kits.

Finally, Nuttall adds, his company is considering ways of adapting its technology to a wider market outside crime – for example, by automating procedures in labs testing for the presence of the West Nile virus or Mad Cow disease.

The alliance between Anjura and the RCMP is somewhat unusual in that the two have agreed to split the STACS revenue stream. The RCMP retains ownership of the intellectual property but has given Anjura a licence to market the product worldwide. The RCMP’s share of the revenues is estimated to be about 15 per cent. It’s a formula Anjura intends to apply to potential partners in the health laboratory field.

The RCMP’s choice of partner was somewhat unusual, given Anjura’s status as a latecomer to the world of forensic biotechnology.

Launched 12 years ago in the founders’ garage, Anjura has grown swiftly to become one of Ottawa’s largest information technology services firms. The vast majority of its 1,250 employees work in call centres on behalf of third parties such as Bell Sympatico. About 150 Anjura employees work on special projects related to information technology.

It was this group that five years ago launched Anjura on the road to becoming a DNA software specialist.

The RCMP had hired two Anjura consultants to advise generally about information technology. The job was straightforward but the context was anything but routine.

Legislation to create a national DNA data bank had been debated in Parliament since the spring of 1997 and, by 1999, was finally looking as though it might pass. However, building a large, complex data bank from scratch was a huge job. RCMP scientists asked Anjura’s consultants about the best way to set up and automate such a system.

The system, the RCMP officials said, demanded a consistent, accurate way of collecting, storing and indexing the DNA samples. The data bank also had to be compatible with CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System developed by the FBI and Department of Justice. CODIS catalogs and ‘bar codes’ collected DNA samples, allowing cross matches.

Finally, the data bank required software capable of tying together all the machines in the lab, automating the process and verifying the DNA data at each of several steps.

The trouble was, neither Anjura nor the RCMP could find a company that sold such a piece of software. Anjura recommended that the RCMP try to develop it in-house with the assistance of a software specialist. Following a competition, the RCMP awarded an initial $3.5-million contract to Anjura.

“This was written from ground zero by forensic scientists working directly with software programmers,” says Ron Fourney, the RCMP officer in charge of the national DNA data bank.

“Anjura didn’t know very much about forensics; we didn’t know how to do advanced programming,” he adds. “It was like managing an artists’ colony. Everyone had their own ideas.”

But the upshot was a fairly imaginative software program. STACS replaces a cumbersome, paper-based routine with a computerized system that automatically tracks who handles the DNA sample, and when, at every stage. Among the main steps: DNA samples are punched out of specially-treated cards by machines, the DNA is extracted, amplified and then digitized according to a format specified by CODIS. Finally, DNA profiles are installed on the Convicted Offender Index – where, as in the case involving Muriel Holland, they are compared daily to the Crime Scene Index for possible matches.

Since every step is recorded by computer, there is an audited trail that can be verified – a key attribute when it comes to providing court testimony. Defense lawyers often attack the credibility of DNA evidence.

Anjura spotted a global opportunity. “The RCMP was a leader in automated processing,” says Nuttall. “We soon realized we could sell the solution to other jurisdictions.”

Anjura first targeted the most technically sophisticated states, reasoning that these would not only be the first to recognize the advantages of STACS but could also serve as valuable references.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement – which provides forensic services to local, state and federal agencies – deployed STACS three years ago and has since been an enthusiastic proponent.

“We had created our own database of convicted offenders in-house but as the numbers topped 100,000, the system started crashing,” says David Coffman, the supervisor of the state’s crime laboratory analysts. “STACS helped us to keep up with the volume as we kept expanding.”

Anjura’s automated system also helped the state to quickly identify trouble spots, for example by identifying independent agencies that are processing DNA samples inefficiently.

Coffman notes that the state’s DNA data bank currently maintains about 230,000 convicted offender profiles – and, with the help of STACS, there is no backlog.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement pays Anjura anywhere between $75,000 to $150,000 U.S. a year for software enhancements. An annual services contract costs another $75,000 U.S. or so. Coffman declined to provide a figure for the cost of the actual software noting that, as Anjura’s lead customer, his department received “a significant discount.”

One of the biggest hurdles facing Anjura in its efforts to break into the U.S. market has little to do with the role of competitors.

“Our barrier to entry is really the lack of available funding (in many jurisdictions),” says Nuttall. “We’re trying to get people who have spent no more than $50,000 on software to step up to a total investment that will top $1 million when you include robots and other lab machinery.”

The U.S. Congress in recent years has made a priority of reducing a backlog estimated at nearly one million DNA profiles of convicted offenders. The backlog includes people sampled but not yet processed and other convicts who are yet to be sampled.

The National DNA Index System of CODIS maintains less than two million DNA profiles but the capacity of the system is being boosted to 50 million.

Concerted efforts to enhance America’s forensic labs should benefit Anjura, especially if the firm follows through with preliminary plans to open a U.S. office.