Scientists trying to identify a corpse painstakingly cut out a tiny piece of bone, crush it to powder and finally extract DNA.
The experts whose work is to put names to human remains at the University of North Texas Health Science Center use high-powered bone saws, a process that leaves room for potential injury and generates a lot of bone dust.
“We have to clean and clean and clean,” DNA expert Rhonda Roby said, explaining that they don’t want bone matter to carry over from sample to sample. All the cleaning takes valuable time — and just a handful of labs exist to identify thousands of bones.
Health Science Center and TCU joined forces to address the problem by creating an automated bone-processing machine.
“I’m so excited about it,” said Roby, who came up with the idea about five years ago. “It was something that was stirring in my head.”
The Automated Bone Processing Machine was unveiled Thursday at the TCU campus during a presentation by the College of Science and Engineering. The machine was invented and designed by health science center researchers and built by TCU engineering students.
“It was very cool,” said Dustin Jones, a senior and and mechanical engineering major. “It was a great experience.”
The health science center is home to the world-renowned UNT Center for Human Identification . Law enforcement agencies nationwide send unidentified human remains to the center every day for DNA testing.
From vision to reality
The project got off the ground after Roby and TCU electrical engineering professor Tristan Tayag joined forces.
Tayag said thousands of sets of bones lie on shelves waiting to be processed.
“The bottleneck is the cleaning and extracting of the bone sample,” Tayag said. “It is time-consuming because it is done manually.”
The project relied on the know-how of 21 undergraduate TCU students who had about $40,000 available from the health science center and a private donor. The students worked in four different groups to build and test the cutting, cleaning, bone mounting and software for the machine.
The students customized a computer-controlled commercial table top mill to meet the forensic needs, using a PlayStation 3 handset as the controller. Students spent 210 hours this spring testing the machine.
TCU students are expected to deliver the bone cutter to the lab on May 1. They said the experience was unique. It is especially rewarding that it will touch lives by helping with missing persons cases.
“I feel great about the project,” said Michael George, project manager and a senior engineering major at TCU. “We created a solid system which should be easy for a new user to operate. It increases user safety while reducing the overall time it takes to obtain a bone sample.”
A big first step
Reducing the cleaning time through automation was one of the main goals of the project, Roby said. It means experts can identify missing persons faster, she said. The machine is also expected to reduce the time it takes to make the cuts, she said.
Roby has been extensively profiled for her work, which includes helping identify human remains from the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, the September 2011 attacks on the World Trade Center and the 1973 Pinochet military coup in Chile.
The machine will be patented, but Roby said there isn’t a high demand for it because there are so few labs.
Roby and others said they are eager to put the machine to work.
“This is clearly a very big first step for us,” she said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675