Efforts to establish an advanced DNA testing laboratory at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver, which will help clear thousands of untested sexual assault kits statewide, are on schedule with the arrival of a robot and newly hired scientists. The high-throughput lab is set to open in summer 2020.
“All our employees are either here now or will be here in the next couple of weeks. They’ve already started training,” crime lab manager Bruce Siggins said Friday. “We want to have all the equipment ready, calibrated and validated so when the renovations are finished, we’re operational on time. So far, we’re doing really well.”
Legislation passed unanimously earlier this year set up new procedures for testing sexual assault kits and called for the development of the high-throughput lab in Vancouver, which should allow the backlog of up to 10,000 kits to be eliminated by December 2021. That law also requires kits be tested within 45 days of being collected. Currently, DNA analysis of some sexual assault kits takes an average of a year to complete.
In a high-throughput lab, forensic scientists use newer, faster testing technologies, but the process is just as important. The scientists look at the narrative of a given case and zero-in on the piece of evidence in a kit that would most quickly provide a quality DNA profile.
The high-throughput lab will be limited to processing sexual assault kit swabs only. Other evidence related to sexual assault cases, such as clothing and bedding, will be processed by the other state patrol DNA departments.
The space for the new lab in Vancouver was readily available. A large, empty room on the second floor of the crime lab on Kauffman Avenue will undergo renovations paid for by grants and state money.
Washington State Patrol is meeting with Portland contractor GSI Builders on Tuesday for a pre-construction meeting, state patrol Director of Communications Chris Loftis said. Construction is expected to start in early January and finish in May. All of the new lab equipment and employees should move into the high-throughput lab and office space in June and be fully operational by July 1 — as originally scheduled, Loftis said.
The crime lab has filled all eight of the scientist positions for the new lab. Five have started working or training, and the remaining three will be on the job within a couple of weeks.
Much of that training has to do with equipment, including the Hamilton Microlab Autolys STAR liquid-handling robot, a glass box with internal machinery worth about $240,000. The robot was picked because it’s capable of fully automating the most labor-intensive parts of DNA processing, officials said.
The robot can handle 88 sexual assault kit swabs placed into two-tiered test tubes at once. The tubes are placed into a tray, and the machine is programmed to move the tray into a centrifuge that spins and shakes the liquid out of the swabs, from the top portion of the tube to the lower, said Heather Pyles, DNA supervisor for the high-throughput lab.
The robot pulls the tubes out, takes a sample of the remaining liquid and sets up a “quantification plate,” Pyles said. Quantification is the process that tells how much human DNA is in a sample and, separately, what part of it is male, she said. (Ninety percent of the lab’s case work points to a male suspect, so its current system works toward the general outcome.)
“The genius of the Autolys is it can use this tube to make that whole process completely hands off. I put this tube on, and when it’s done running, it basically spits out a tray,” which is manually moved to another piece of equipment, Pyles said. So, most of the tedious, hands-on work of testing kits has been removed from the process, she said.
Once the high-throughput lab is up and running and staff is fully trained, each scientist will be able to complete an average of 14 sexual assault kits per month, which is double the amount they’re expected to complete using current methods, Loftis said.
In 2018, the total number of newly received sexual assault cases was about 2,400 (not including historical cases), and the total number received this year is expected to exceed about 2,600, according to the state patrol.
Siggins noted another factor that will increase the number of processed kits: The robot never sleeps. Scientists get the automation rolling and head home for the day, he said.
The crime lab will eventually obtain a second Autolys. Like every other DNA-centric instrument in the lab, there needs to be repetitive systems, Pyles said. If one machine is down for service, the second ensures the lab is never non-operational, she said.
“We cannot afford, especially with the high-throughput lab, not to be fully operational at all times. Another reason is that we have 11 analysts who are going to be using (the robots) as their main workhorse,” Pyles said.
According to the state patrol, the lab’s full-time employees, supplies and equipment are estimated to cost $4.1 million. The Legislature provided $10.29 million in operational funds and $276,500 in capital funding for the sexual assault kit backlog efforts, Loftis said. The capital funds have been matched by a grant.
Additionally, Washington has been awarded more than $5 million in federal funds to help get rid of the backlog. Four grants that went to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and the state patrol will be used to inventory, test and track sexual assault kits, as well as expand the capacity of labs statewide and digitize records.