New African forensic genotyping kit will help bring down sexual predators

Forensic cover

A BioFISA II grant has helped Inqaba Biotec and the University of the Western Cape achieve their goal of creating a better, cheaper forensic kit custom-built for African genetic diversity. Project manager, Mischa Francesca Fraser talks about the need for such a product for Africa and how it will help police solve sexual assault cases in southern Africa and the rest of the continent.

Inqaba Biotec prides itself as the go-to genomics company in Africa and it is for this reason that the company has teamed up with the University of the Western Cape to solve a problem found in solving sexual assault cases in South Africa. Managing the project is Mischa Francesca Fraser, a senior DNA analyst who says Inqaba Biotec has been working with its partners for several years to bring the new genotyping forensic kit to reality.

Forensic genotyping kits are used by law enforcement to link male perpetrators to cases of sexual assault, using a technique called DNA fingerprinting which targets male-specific DNA. An important requirement for such kits is that they must be able to discriminate among individuals, but the current kits on the market in South Africa are not very good at this.

“In every individual we have a lot of DNA. There are parts of DNA that are similar in each individual, but contain different mutations and these mutations can be detected and identified as markers,” says Fraser. “These markers have become very useful for understanding heritage, as well as for fingerprinting or identifying unique individuals within a population.”

The prototype developed by the University of the Western Cape in partnership with Inqaba Biotec distinguishes between male individuals in South Africa, where competitors on the market fall behind in price and in the capacity to discriminate. Fraser explains that in sexual assault cases where the perpetrator is male, there is a lot of mixture with DNA from the victim and this makes it important to focus on identifying the male DNA.

Law enforcement needs a large database of the DNA markers common within each population, region, or country, and the South Africa National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) at UWC has developed such a database with the help of the chief scientist on the project, Professor Maria D’Amato, also at the University of the Western Cape. D’Amato has identified genetic markers unique to the region to make a kit better suited for South African populations.

The UWC has developed a database using these important markers, and they will make the data available to forensic labs in the southern African region. They developed the reference database to have a high geographic and ethnic coverage for South Africa, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

They had the help of Mr Zephaniah Dhlamini, who runs a laboratory that provides forensic services to the Police in Zimbabwe; and Sgt Mpasi Lesaoana who is a forensic scientist and policeman with the Lesotho Mountain Police, which is growing DNA forensics in Lesotho.

“We have engaged with clients – forensic labs who use reagents and equipment purchased through Inqaba Biotec – to test these kits as they will be the ones using it in the field,” says Fraser. These are efforts to grow the underdeveloped market of forensic genotyping on the continent, to coincide with the growing investments by African countries into the field.

This success of the project owes a lot to funding from the BioFISA II programme and the network provided by SANBio. “It has helped an enormous amount. The development of this type of prototype is extremely expensive and a private company does not always have access to that sort of funding,” says Fraser.

“The network has helped us find partners, it has helped with business training,” Fraser says. “It has linked people from all areas in Africa since SANBio engages with a lot of entrepreneurs around southern Africa.”

Motivated by a lack of certainty when it comes to verdicts and criminal convictions, Inqaba Biotec and their partners have used their expertise to solve the problem using innovation and entrepreneurship. This is but one example where SANBio, through the BioFISA II programme, helps bioscience businesses become a commercial success while solving African problems.