New DNA Technology May Help Families of 9/11 Victims Get Closure

"It can get very emotional with the thank yous and the hugs we get."

New DNA technology is helping forensic scientists identify victims of 9/11. 

In the 17 years since 9/11, the city has identified 1,642 of the 2,753 victims of the attack, but the process has been slow because of the damage done to many of the remains at Ground Zero. Just one victim a year has been identified for the last three years, and now a new technology — which the New York City's Chief Medical Examiner is borrowing from the military —could be used to speed things up for the remaining 1,111 victims. 

"We have been able to use what we learned from this tragedy to help other cities and countries who have experienced disasters, and we've been able to work closely with the tech industry to develop and utilize methods that will help us identify all the people we lost," Mark Desire, assistant director of forensic biology for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), said in a statement to A Plus.

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Last week, during a media tour of the laboratory where the remains of 9/11 victims are identified, officials explained that "next generation sequencing," or NGS, would allow them to pull DNA from the degraded genetic material. Many of the remains were damaged by the fires from the planes' jet fuel and will not be recoverable, regardless of technological advancements. Other remains, where the DNA has simply degraded over time, could now become accessible. But the majority of what's left to extract DNA from is bones.

"It's very hard to get DNA from bones to begin with, and these World Trade Center remains have been exposed to things at Ground Zero that destroy DNA," Desire told A Plus. "Things like fire and water and jet fuel and mold and bacteria and sunlight." 

OCME scientist
A scientist at the OCME lab goes through the DNA extraction process for reporters.  Chris Rainwater / OCME

Still, on Thursday, the NGS technology was used to identify Scott Michael Johnson, a financial worker who died on 9/11 at the age of 26. Johnson's identification process was considered a major breakthrough. Once Johnson's DNA profile was extracted, it was run against a database of samples provided by the families for an identification match. His DNA profile was matched with samples of a toothbrush the OCME received from his family.

"In 2001, we made a commitment to the families of victims that we would do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to identify their loved ones," Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson said in a statement to A Plus. "This identification is the result of the tireless dedication of our staff to this ongoing mission."

Desire, who has been helping identify remains for the city for 21 years, said the OCME has always used the newest technology it could get its hands on. Its mission to identify victims of 9/11 has also pushed the office's research and development, which has improved their ability to identify remains over the last 17 years. The new NGS technology allows them to look at smaller parts of DNA than past technology, which means they need fewer parts of undamaged DNA to create a profile of remains, and can also work with more degraded DNA. 

Mark Desire
Mark Desire, assistant director of forensic biology for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), speaks to the media.  Chris Rainwater / OCME

Desire explained that working on the World Trade Center remains is a particularly special case for forensic scientists because they work so closely with the families of the victims. As new technology comes out, they share updates with the families about what they may be able to do at the OCME. Those conversations often involve explaining exactly how they are using the new techonology and what puzzle pieces they hope it can put together.

"It can get very emotional with the thank yous and the hugs we get," he said. "It gives us energy."

Desire is the last of the forensic scientists who were at the OCME when the World Trade Center collapsed, he said. Now, a new batch of younger scientists, who have been educated with the latest technology, are replacing the old guard. He said they are all humbled and honored to be on the project, and he's hoping the new energy and education the next generation of scientists bring will continue to push their project forward. 

"We have remains that we have been unsuccessful in making a DNA profile out of," Desire said. "Will this new tech be able to overcome that? Yes, yes. This will make profiles that we previously haven't been able to do. Will there be any new IDs in there? That's something that we hope, but we just don't know."

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