|Genetics Experts Join Together to Support Efforts to Identify
Remaining Hurricane Katrina Victims
A multi-institution team of experts, coordinated by geneticists from the National
Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH), is supporting efforts to identify more than 70 bodies still unidentified
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m very proud of how the genetics community has joined together in this time
of continuing need. It is inspiring to see how these professionals are giving
of their time and expertise to help families through the difficult process of
finding the loved ones that Katrina so cruelly took away,” said NHGRI Scientific
Director Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D.
When Katrina struck on August 29 and unleashed devastating floods, it claimed
more than 1,200 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many of the victims already
have been identified and their remains claimed by their families. However, more
than 70 bodies remain unidentified, including bodies recovered shortly after
the floods receded and bodies recently recovered as debris from the hurricane
has been removed from the hardest hit areas of New Orleans.
Using experience gained in DNA analysis of human remains after the terrorist
attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, epidemiologists, clinical geneticists and genetic
counselors are supporting Louisiana state officials in the task of collecting
data on family relationships, which is a key step in the complex process of DNA
testing being used to match recovered remains to the list of more than 1,100
people still missing in Katrina’s wake.
Joan Bailey-Wilson, Ph.D., co-chief of the NHGRI’s Inherited Disease Research
Branch, has been coordinating efforts of more than 70 genetics professionals
who have offered to help the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory in its management
of the identification process and collection of DNA (cheek swab) samples from
family members of the missing. These professionals come from more than 30 U.S.
medical institutions and private practices across the United States.
Along with Elizabeth Pugh, Ph.D., M.P.H., head of statistical genetics at the
Center for Inherited Disease Research, an NIH-funded initiative based at the
Johns Hopkins’ Bayview campus in Baltimore, Dr. Bailey-Wilson serves on a panel
to advise crime lab staff and the coroners’ offices in both states responsible
for identifying the dead and missing. It is a repeat role for the two statistical
geneticists, who also served on a panel for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks five years ago. Other NIH
personnel serving on both advisory committees include: Leslie Biesecker, M.D.,
of NHGRI’s Genetic Disease Research Branch, and Stephen Sherry, Ph.D., and Lisa
Forman, Ph.D., both of the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for
“Pulling together the infrastructure — from experts in various disciplines and
from medical centers across the country — is a skill that forensics experts learned
from 9/11. Most of us hoped it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but sadly it was
not,” said Dr. Bailey-Wilson, who is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Many medical and dental records normally used to match bodies with names of
the missing were destroyed, leaving few clues behind as to whose remains were
found. Even DNA-facilitated identification has proved to be a challenge. Personal
items, such as toothbrushes and hairbrushes that could contain saliva and hair
samples useful in DNA testing, were often contaminated or destroyed by flooding.
Making matters worse, family members whose DNA is required to make a match were
displaced by the hurricane, making contact difficult and adding delays to interviews
and appointments for genetic testing.
“One of the lessons learned from 9/11 was that talking to the families about
the missing is skilled detective work, which is best done by qualified genetics
clinicians and genetic counselors who know the right questions to ask based on
the information needed to fill in the family pedigree,” said Dr. Pugh, who is
also an assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
observing that, in today’s world of blended families and multiple marriages,
not all siblings are biologically related to one another.
Most of the genetics professionals are being sent to the Louisiana Family Assistance
Center in Baton Rouge, La., where investigative operations are based. Once there,
they interview relatives by phone to help construct complex family trees of individuals
who are presumed lost, a crucial first step in the identification of the dead
using DNA testing.
In DNA identification testing, a person’s unique genetic makeup is matched against
other previously known DNA samples, such as stored blood or material taken from
toothbrushes or hair combs. If no known samples of DNA exist, DNA is obtained
from family members in order to look for unique patterns of genetic traits, or
markers, specific to the individual based on the patterns found in the family.
In the case of the 2005 hurricane victims, ultimately, the state coroner makes
an official identification using results from the DNA analysis alone or in combination
with other information, such as distinguishing physical features or the location
where the body was found.
Compiling a genetic picture of the family requires an accurate construction
of the family tree, which can be built using biological information obtained
from siblings, parents, grandparents or cousins.
“This is not an easy task. Taking down the correct information, correctly assessing
the nature of relationships, and establishing which relatives are willing to
donate DNA is a very sensitive and time-consuming process, especially for large,
extended families. But it is a task that needs to be done so that families can
finally get some answers about their missing loved ones,” said Barbara Biesecker,
M.S., director of the Johns Hopkins/NHGRI Genetic Counseling Training Program,
who has traveled to Louisiana with two groups of genetic counseling graduate
Tracking this process for each missing person and each recovered body involves
tremendous attention to detail, added Dr. Pugh, who helped the Louisiana State
Police Crime Laboratory’s DNA unit set up one of the computer systems and protocols
that will guide the identification process. She notes that the whole identification
effort follows strict confidentially rules to protect people’s privacy.
A person’s DNA contains all the genetic information passed down from their parents,
but slightly different — though mostly similar — combinations are passed along
to siblings. Statistical methods are used to compare and match DNA samples to
determine how likely it is that genetic markers found in an unidentified, deceased
person fit into the pattern of genetic markers observed in relatives of someone
According to Pugh, genetic testing is made easier by commercially available
computer software programs to analyze DNA testing results. These programs can
statistically match an individual with genetic material from the same person
or with that of family members using as few as 16 unique genetic markers. Additionally,
the National Center for Biotechnology Information is deploying their innovative
software programs to help assure the quality and accuracy of the DNA results
upon which identifications are being made.
“The work of volunteers and staff at the Louisiana Family Assistance Center
and the State Police Crime Lab is helping these families, but it is also bridging
the gap between genetic and forensic medicine to help make our country better
prepared to deal with a massive disaster of this nature,” said Dr. Bailey-Wilson,
who like Dr. Pugh has ties to the Gulf region, where both studied and worked
for several years.
Other NHGRI staff and fellows who have traveled to Louisiana to help include:
Joie Davis, R.N., Genetics Nurse Practitioner; Don Hadley, M.S., Associate Investigator
and Genetic Counselor; Michael Kayser, M.D., Medical Genetics Fellow; Trish Magyari,
M.S., Genetic Counselor; Melissa Merideth, M.D., Medical Genetics Fellow; Holly
Peay, M.S., Genetic Counselor; Julie Sapp, M.S., Genetic Counselor; and Jennifer
Sloan, M.S., Genetic Counselor.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.