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MRSA In Sports: Long-Standing, Simple to Prevent, Still Happening

Big news in sports the past few days: Daniel Fells, tight end for the New York Giants, is battling a MRSA infection so severe that he has been hospitalized in isolation and had multiple surgeries. Some news stories have speculated doctors may amputate his foot in an attempt to corral the infection.

It’s a tragic situation for the player, and no doubt frightening for the team, which is reported to have sought medical advice and scrubbed down their locker rooms to prevent any additional cases.

What it’s not, unfortunately, is new. MRSA—the acronym for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, staph bacteria that are resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics—has been dogging sports teams for more than 20 years. And for at least 10 of those years, we’ve known what to do to prevent it. But it’s not at all clear that teams treat that prevention as a routine thing they should be doing—and because of that, every athlete’s infection seems like a random tragedy, instead of an avoidable mistake.

Among the long litany of MRSA cases in athletes, some have been high-profile: Lawrence Tynes, who is suing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over a career-ending infection (two of his teammates were infected as well); Brandon Noble of the Washington Redskins, who lost his pro career over a knee infection (six of his teammates developed infections too); Kenny George of  the University of North Carolina-Asheville, who had part of his foot amputated.

But the list of those known to have been affected (and this is certainly not complete) is much longer. Some other names: Kellen Winslow (and five teammates) of the Cleveland Browns, Peyton Manning, Drew Gooden, Mike Gansey, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rios, Paul Pierce, Kenyon Martin, Braylon Edwards, and Grant Hill. And, in addition, the St. Louis Rams, the USC Trojans, and dozens of college and high school teams going back to 1993.

MRSA infections seem like they sweep in out of nowhere, especially the apocalyptically bad ones (such as MRSA pneumonia, which can kill a child in days). But in fact, some MRSA cases are very predictable. They are more likely to occur in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “5 C’s“: places where there is crowding, skin-to-skin contact, compromised skin from cuts or abrasions, contaminated items and surfaces, and lack of cleanliness.

Add all those together, and you have a pretty good description of a football field, and a locker room after a game.

MRSA is simple to catch: The bacterium lives on the surface of our skin, and in our nostrils and other warm, damp body crevices, and causes an infection when the skin is breached and the bacteria slip into tissue or the bloodstream. In hospitals, where MRSA first became a problem in the 1960s, that breach could come from surgery, or an incision made to allow for a catheter or an IV. But in the everyday world, where MRSA has been a problem since the mid-1990s, the source is more likely to be a cut or a scrape—in the kitchen, in the outdoors, or, in sports, from a razor, training equipment, artificial turf, a wrestling mat, or pads or straps cutting into a shoulder or a shin. (And sometimes, nothing at all. Toxins manufactured by the bacterium can break down the skin, causing the hot pinpoint infections that people often mistake for spider bites.)

Fells is supposed to have been infected at some point in the past few weeks, after a toe and ankle injury and a cortisone shot to the ankle. I don’t have inside intel on his treatment, or on what the Giants do in their locker rooms. But I know what teams that had MRSA problems in the past did to shut their outbreaks down. It wasn’t complicated—but it required commitment and attention, and it took a while.

Between 2002 and 2006, the Trojans, the Rams, and the Redskins were all so spooked by epidemics among their players that they asked the CDC and local health departments for help. (The stories of the outbreaks are told in my last book, Superbug.) They learned that stopping the infections and protecting their players took many steps: requiring everyone to shower post-game. Scouring the hydrotherapy tubs. Disinfecting the training equipment and massage tables. Discouraging body shaving, even though it makes taping up—and untaping—a lot less uncomfortable. Raising the water temperature in the laundry machines. Making sure no one shared bars of soap in the shower or towels on the field.

After Noble’s injury, the Redskins ripped out their entire training facility and installed a new one, spraying germ-killing coatings on the lockers and discarding the shared benches for individual stools. The teams practiced these steps over and over, chastising and sometimes fining players who didn’t bother, and shut their outbreaks down.

MRSA is also a serious problem for school teams; in fact, it was school outbreaks—in a Vermont high school in 1993, a Pennsylvania college in 2000, a Connecticut university in 2003, and throughout Texas high schools for several years in a row—that first alerted researchers that athletes might be at special risk. When I was writing Superbug, I spent a lot of time with trainers and coaches, and it was striking how open they were about the problem. Whether because of affection for their students, responsibility to parents, or fear of lawsuits, athletic programs all over the US were educating kids and staffs about the danger, and teaching them how to protect themselves.

Pro teams, which clamp down on information about players’ injuries as competitive intelligence, mostly don’t talk about their MRSA plans. But it’s not clear they are training and protecting as comprehensively as schools do. A year ago, the Washington Post took a look back at Brandon Noble’s career-ending infection, and reported that MRSA prevention is not uniform across NFL teams. This season, Duke University’s Infection Control Outreach Network Program for Infection Prevention in the NFL, known for short as DICON, began working with the NFL Players Association to distribute a manual on infection prevention to all 32 teams and to train their personnel. That the teams agreed to participate is a big step—but that the program was needed suggests how vulnerable some players still are. Until MRSA prevention becomes routine in locker rooms, other players may end up as ill as Fells now is.

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Surgeon Reveals Head Transplant Plan, But Patient Steals the Show

ANNAPOLIS, Md.—Valery Spiridonov looks impossibly small. He is dressed in all white, from his white button-down shirt to the white socks on his feet, which dangle at the ends of white pants and a white blanket. Breaking up the look is a black strap, which holds him to a motorized wheelchair.

He uses his left hand, which he can still move, a little bit, to steer the wheelchair into a hotel meeting room. There, he confirms that he would like to be the first person ever to have his head transplanted onto a new body.

Spiridonov flew from Russia to be at this conference, the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS). He joined the surgeon proposing to do the transplant, Sergio Canavero of Turin, Italy. Canavero had built up his talk, a keynote address, for months, promising a big reveal of his plans to transplant Spiridonov’s head onto a donor body. (For background, see my earlier blog post and a good overview at New Scientist.)

The meeting is small, maybe 100 or fewer surgeons, and held in a very normal-looking Westin hotel in Annapolis, Md. Conference organizer Maggie Kearney spent much of the day turning away reporters in anticipation of a packed room. She says that in 15 years, she can’t remember a reporter ever attending the surgical conference before.

By the end of Canavero’s three-hour-long presentation (it was supposed to be an hour and a half, Maggie tells me), most of the reporters in the room seem worn out, and a bit confused about what the fuss was all about.

Sergio Canaveros
Sergio Canaveros, right.
Erika Engelhaupt

Canavero reviewed, at length, the scientific literature on spinal cord injury and recovery, regrowth of various parts of the central nervous system, and why some of the basic assumptions of neurosurgery are wrong. Throughout the lecture, he would occasionally point to Valery Spiridonov, his wheelchair parked near the stage, and make a declaration (“Propriospinal tract neurons are the key that will make him walk again!”).

Answering detractors’ comments that the transplant could be “worse than death” or could drive Spiridonov insane, Canavero asked Spiridonov directly, “Don’t you agree that your [current] condition could drive you to madness?”

Spiridonov answered quietly in the affirmative.

His condition is grave: a degenerative motor neuron disease that is slowly killing him. “I am sure that one day gene therapy and stem cells will fulfill their future,” Canavero said, “but for this man it will come too late.”

Finally, near the end of the talk, Canavero roughly outlined the surgery. He plans to sever the spinal cord very cleanly, using a special scalpel honed nano-sharp. (I could not see Spiridonov’s reaction to the special scalpel, but wondered.)

To minimize any die-off of cells at the severed ends during the transfer, Canavero says he will cut Spiridonov’s spinal cord a bit lower on the spine than needed, and the body’s a bit higher, and then at the last minute slice them again for a fresh cut. Then, add some polyethylene glycol (shown to stimulate nerve regrowth in animals), join the two ends together with a special connector, and voila. Electrical stimulation would then be applied to further encourage regrowth.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it, like reconnecting all the blood vessels and so forth, but Canavero is a neurosurgeon and the spinal cord was his focus.

Other neurosurgeons at the meeting responded cautiously to the proposal. The surgery might be possible “someday, but it is really a delicate situation,” said Kazem Fathie, a former chair of the board of AANOS.

Craig Clark, a general neurosurgeon in Greenwood, Mississippi, calls Canavero’s idea “very provocative.”

“There have been many papers over the years that have shown regeneration, but for one reason or another they didn’t pan out when applied clinically,” he said.

“There’s a lot of ethical questions about it,” said neurosurgeon Quirico Torres of Abilene, Texas. But Torres thinks it could be ethical to allow volunteers to do the surgery, and one day we might consider it normal. “Remember, years ago people were questioning Bill Gates: why do you need a computer? And now we can’t live without it.”

What’s Next?

Apart from the rundown of previous work on spinal cord injury, much of what Canavero said about the surgery was pretty much what he has said before. He supported his arguments for individual elements of a head transplant (or body transplant, if you prefer) but did not reveal any new demonstration of the entire procedure working in a person or an animal.

But Canavero has no shortage of confidence. He says he wants to do the surgery in America (implying Italy doesn’t have its act together enough to host a cutting-edge project like this).

“I have a detailed plan to do it,” he said, adding that he is asking Bill Gates and other billionaires to donate. He invited surgeons at the meeting to join his team, which could be enormous—more than 100 surgeons, he has said—and he wants team leaders in orthopedics, vascular surgery, and so on. These surgeons should work on the project full time for the next two years, he said, “and you will be paid through the nose, because I think doctors involved in this should be paid more than football players.”

Valery Spiridonov entering the conference room. Photo: Erika Engelhaupt

After the talk, Spiridonov disappeared into a room to rest. When he came back out, he answered questions for the TV crews that had descended, sounding a bit weary of answering the same questions he’s been asked before. “What will happen to you if you don’t get this surgery?” a reporter called out. “My life will be pretty dark,” he said. “My muscles are growing weaker. It’s pretty scary.”

He looked tired.

During his interviews, I stepped aside to talk with his hosts in Annapolis, who are friends of a friend of the Spiridonov family. “He’s brilliant, he’s happy, he’s funny,” said Briana Alessi. “If this surgery were to go through and if it works, it’s going to give him a life. It’s life-changing. He’ll be able to do the things he could only dream of.”

And if not? “He’s taking a chance either way,” she said.

The final question he takes from the press: What do you say to people who say this surgery should not be done?

Spiridonov’s reply: “Maybe they should imagine themselves in my place.”

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Easter Chicks: Cute, Fluffy, and Probably Bad For You

In the United States—and for that matter in much of the world—the foodborne disease Salmonella is a major public health problem. Here, it causes an estimated 1 million cases every year. We tend to think of those cases, and most foodborne illness, as minor episodes of needing to stay close to the bathroom—but every year, 19,000 of them end up in the hospital and almost 400 people die. And even if they survive, people aren’t necessarily out of danger; after decades of dismissing foodborne illness as unimportant and self-limited, researchers are beginning to understand that it can have lifelong consequences.

So it’s important, as much as possible, to identify the sources of Salmonella infection, and to alert people to the ways in which they can protect themselves.

And that’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, is worried about those fluffball Easter chicks that might be appearing in households this weekend, as well as the juvenile poultry that backyard farmers and urban locavores may begin buying as the weather warms.

As I mentioned in my intro post yesterday, I also am writing for National Geographic‘s food site, The Plate, and I have a new post up there about the under-appreciated danger posed by live baby poultry. Whether you are buying them for immediate adorableness on top of an Easter basket, or eventual eggs or meat in a small-scale coop, most of us find baby chicks irresistible, in the hard-wired way that makes us melt before kittens and babies too. So we cradle them, and cuddle them, and smooch them on top of the head. But we forget that, just like babies of every other species, they are poop machines. And Salmonella travels in poop.

There are millions of baby chicks and other poultry sold every year: several millions pounds’ worth, according to the US Post Office, which ships most of them. In the past several years, they have caused significant outbreaks: 363 people in 43 states in 2014; 158 people ill, in 30 states in 2013; 195 people sick in 27 states in 2012; and 316 people sick in 43 states in the years before that.

This isn’t an argument against buying baby poultry, especially not if you’re doing it for small-scale egg or meat production. (Animal welfare organizations urge not buying baby animals just for Easter, because of the likelihood they will be dumped.)

But it is a plea on behalf of something I’m probably going to be saying a lot as we go forward: Don’t forget to wash your hands.

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Personhood Week: Conception Is a Process

Earlier this month voters in two U.S. States, Colorado and North Dakota, considered new laws that would bolster the legal rights of a fetus before birth. Neither of these ballot initiatives passed, but they’re part of a “personhood movement” that’s been gaining notoriety among pro-life advocates since about 2008. Reading about this movement in the press (Vox has a great overview) has made me wonder about the slippery, contentious, and profound meaning of “personhood.”

The Wikipedia page for personhood gives this definition: “Personhood is the status of being a person.” Right-o.

The page for person isn’t much clearer: “A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and by different cultures in different times and places.”

I’ve chosen five personhood perspectives to write about this week. Today’s installment is all about conception (another fuzzy concept). Tomorrow I’ll try to tackle the transition from child to adult. Wednesday I’ll ask whether dead bodies are people. Thursday goes to non-human animals, and Friday to neuroscientists who argue that “personhood” is a convenient, if illusory construction of the human brain.

I’d love to hear about how you guys define personhood, and why. Feel free to leave comments on these posts, or jump in to the #whatisaperson conversation on Twitter.


I went to a Catholic high school, where I was taught in religion class that life begins at conception. I don’t remember my teacher getting into the biological details, but we all knew what she meant: Life begins at the moment that an earnest sperm finishes his treacherous swimming odyssey and hits that big, beautiful egg.

That’s what many Christians believe, and it’s also the fundamental idea behind the personhood movement. The website of Personhood USA, a nonprofit Christian ministry, highlights this quote by French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune: “After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. It is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.”

That’s not a common belief among biologists, however. Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore calls the conception story a “founding myth,” like The Aeneid. As he jokes in a popular lecture, “We are not the progeny of some wimpy sperm — we are the progeny of heroes!”

In reality, conception — or more precisely, fertilization — is not a moment. It’s a process.

After the sperm DNA enters the egg, it takes at least 12 hours for it to find its way to the egg’s DNA. The sperm and egg chromosomes condense in a coordinated dance, with the help of lots of proteins call microtubules, eventually forming a zygote. But a true diploid nucleus — that is, one that contains a full set of chromosomes from each parent — does not exist until the zygote has split into two cells, about two days after the sperm first arrive.

So is that two-cell stage, then, at day two, when personhood begins?

It could be, if you define personhood on a purely genetic level. I have a hard time doing so, though, because of twins. Identical twins share exactly the same genome, but are obviously not the same person.

Based on this logic, some biologists push back the start of personhood to about 14 days after the sperm enters the egg, a stage called gastrulation. This is when the zygote transforms from one layer into three, with each layer destined to become different types of tissues. It’s only after this stage that you could look at a zygote and say definitively that it’s not going to split into identical twins (or triplets or even quadruplets).

Via Wikipedia: Gastrulation occurs when a blastula, made up of one layer, folds inward and enlarges to create a gastrula.
Image via Wikipedia

So is the 14th day of gestation, then, when personhood begins?

Some doctors would say no, you have to also consider the fetal brain. We define a person’s death, after all, as the loss of brain activity. So why wouldn’t we also define a person’s emergence based on brain activity? If you take this view, Gilbert notes, then you’ll push personhood to about the 28th week of gestation. That’s the earliest point when researchers (like this group) have been able to pick up tell-tell brain activity patterns in a developing fetus.

Most legal definitions of personhood in the United States also focus on this late stage of gestation. The famous Roe v. Wade case in 1973 made it illegal for states to ban abortions before the third trimester of pregnancy, which begins at 28 weeks. Subsequent rulings by the court got rid of this trimester notion, saying instead that abortions can’t happen after a fetus is “viable,” or able to live outside the womb, which can be as early as 22 or 23 weeks. (And in 2003, Congress banned a specific procedure called a partial-birth abortion, which happens between 15 and 26 weeks.)

So there you have it. From a biological perspective, neither conception nor personhood is easily defined. “I really can’t tell you when personhood begins,” Gilbert says in his lecture. “But I can say with absolute certainty that there’s no consensus among scientists.”

These definitions don’t necessarily get easier after birth, either. But we’ll get to that tomorrow.

Historical Fossils May Be Lost at Auction

Update (11/18/2013): I’m happy to report that the San Diego Natural History Museum has decided to withdraw the remaining fossils from auction. You can read their official statement here. Where the significant fossils will end up has not been announced, but I am relieved that they will be saved for science. And I applaud the efforts of Kenshu Shimada and other paleontologists who have worked so tirelessly to make sure the important specimens stay available for study.

Two weeks ago, paleontologists at this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Los Angeles, California were shocked to find a technical poster displaying tyrannosaur fossils that are soon going up for auction. The dinosaur, which has not been properly curated in a museum, may wind up in hands of a private buyer. But the controversial dinosaur isn’t the only fossil that may soon be lost to scientists on the Bonham’s block. More unsettling is the impending sale of historic specimens previously held at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

High-priced fossils rarely go up for auction alone. Headliner specimens are often joined by an array of other fossils from different sources that may or may not have been legally acquired by the sellers. And in the case of the Bonham’s sale next week, the “Dueling Dinosaurs” are supplemented, in part, by various specimens collected by the famous fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg that were curated at the SDNHM. The museum specimens include an enormous fossil fish called Xiphactinus, and, until now, also counted a partial skull of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus. As the formal statement from the SVP on this matter states, “The decision to sell these fossils at public auction was not that of any paleontologist at the SDNHM”, but that doesn’t ease the worry that these fossils may soon be lost to a private collector.

Both the Xiphactinus and Chasmosaurus formed the basis of formal fossil studies and are important data points in ongoing investigations. Given the study and debate surrounding how horned dinosaurs changed as they aged, in particular, the loss of the Chasmosaurus skull to a private buyer would rob researchers of another individual with which to investigate growth and variation in this dinosaur and its kin.

But even at a more basic level, the loss of such specimens creates a major stumbling block for paleontology. If a previously-studied and published fossil has been deaccessioned and sold off, then the specimen is off limits to researchers who want to take a fresh look or check up on old data. The fossil has to effectively disappear from the literature as it’s no longer open to study. It’s a matter of reproduciblility. If a fossil like the Xiphactinus skeleton isn’t permanently stored and cared for in a museum, then no one can re-examine or check on what has been gleaned from that fossil before.

The irony of the sale is that the auction booklet plays up the historical nature of the SDNHM fossils, yet those who approved the sale thought that the fossils weren’t historically important enough to keep within the museum or trade to another. Charles H. Sternberg was a major figure in the field who discovered scads of beautiful specimens. Selling off specimens he collected vaporizes part of his history, and may frustrate researchers who later try to track down what he collected and worked on.

As of this morning, after the official SVP letter of complaint was issued, the Chasmosaurus skull has been withdrawn from auction. The Xiphactinus skeleton is still up for grabs, as is a mosasaur skeleton and other Sternberg-collected fossils. Given how long these fossils have been at the SDNHM, and how many researchers have pored over them, we may not even know how the full extent of what’s being lost until after the sale has taken place. This directly violates the ethics code of SVP.

Fossils are part of a natural history heritage that belongs to everyone. Selling them not only steals them away from science, but prevents researchers from translating discoveries from those fossils into the inspiring visions of prehistory presented in museums, books, and films. That is why SVP requires members to follow the statement that “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust.” Whoever at the SDNHM authorized the sale of Sternberg’s fossils did so in opposition of this important standard to safeguard significant fossils.

There’s less than a week before the SDNHM fossils go up for auction. I hope that museum directors and staff there can work with the SVP to take another look at the fossils put up for sale and save some of Sternberg’s legacy, regardless of whether they stay in San Diego or are given to another institution for care. So many informative fossils have already been lost to private buyers. When a museum is involved in such a loss, the pain cuts that much deeper.

You can contact the San Diego Natural History Museum to object to the sale of Sternberg’s fossils here.

Update: The San Diego Natural History Museum has issued a statement about why their Sternberg collection was deaccessioned and put up for auction. According to the museum, the Sternberg fossils are “unrelated to our mission” and their sale was approved by the board of directors after other museums were contacted about taking the fossils.

Yet the statement neglects to say who determined that the fossils were unimportant to the SDNHM and how other institutions were contacted. From the outrage sparked by the publication of the auction catalog, it seems that many vertebrate paleontologists who have studied the fossils and consider them valuable had no idea of the impending sale. Paleontologist and Charles H. Sternberg expert Mike Everhart expressed his dismay to the Hays Daily News, and fossil fish expert Kenshu Shimada has likewise worked to rally paleontologists to stop the auction of scientifically-important specimens previously held by the SDNHM. The fact that the ceratopsid skull was withdrawn after being listed and will go to Alberta, Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum is another hint that paleontologists were not made fully aware of what was being sold until after the Bonham’s catalog was published.

While the SDNHM’s focus on acquiring fossils and geological samples relevant to southern California is certainly a worthwhile goal, raising funds by selling off scientifically and historically important specimens is not the way to do so.

[Top image by Ryan Somma, via Flickr]

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Could DNA Databases Curb Human Trafficking?

Interstate 20 starts on the west side of Texas and runs east to the Atlantic ocean, passing through Dallas along the way. The highway has lots of truck stops, some of which are known sites of prostitution, serial murders, or both. About once a month, always on a Wednesday, Dallas police show up at one of these spots for an unusual sting operation.

The cops round up the prostitutes, usually about a dozen of them, and bring them to an area set up with food, clothes, STD testing, and legal counsel. “They walk them over and say, ‘You would be going to jail if it was Tuesday. But it’s your lucky Wednesday’,” says Sara Katsanis, an associate in research at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. The police give them two options: either go to jail, or start a 14-day rehabilitation program known as the Prostitute Diversion Initiative, or PDI. So far hundreds of prostitutes have chosen the latter.

Since PDI launched in April of 2007, it has helped many prostitutes (almost all women) find addiction counseling, housing, and lawful employment. But many girls stay in the sex industry. It’s a dangerous profession, with a death rate six times higher than average (and a homicide death rate 18 times higher).

PDI participants may voluntarily submit a saliva sample for future DNA testing. The police will test the sample only if it’s relevant to some future crime — most likely, for a post-mortem identification. In other words, the only way the prostitute’s DNA donation can help her is if she turns up dead.

“Prostitutes are quite often, in Texas, victims of homicide, and quite often they don’t carry ID. So the police end up with a crime scene, a victim, and the inability to connect the dots,” Katsanis says. But there may be other beneficial uses for those saliva samples, she says.

Some of the Texas prostitutes, for example, may have been sold into the sex trade as children. Imagine a world in which secure, international databases could match genetic profiles of missing children or human trafficking victims — prostitutes, illegally adopted children, even child soldiers — with profiles submitted by their family members. As Katsanis writes in a commentary published today in Trends in Genetics, this kind of thing is already happening, but on a very small scale. In order for it to be really useful, she says, researchers, policy makers, law enforcement, and non-profits from many different countries will have to work out a whole lot of ethical, legal and logistical issues.

You’ve probably heard of the police using DNA databases to identify criminals — the Supreme Court is now deciding a case about this very thing, and Justice Samuel Alito said it might be “the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades.” But you might be surprised (I was) to learn that U.S. federal authorities also routinely use DNA information for immigration cases. When people want to enter the U.S. as refugees, they may submit DNA samples to prove they’re related to American citizens (a requirement for many refugees). Unlike the criminal DNA databases that are controlled by the government, for immigration cases the feds hire commercial laboratories to perform the tests and store the samples.

Indefinite storage of DNA, especially by the government, naturally raises concerns about privacy and trust. That’s doubly true for vulnerable populations, like children, immigrants and trafficking victims, who may not understand the language of consent forms or the purpose of the tests, or may feel coerced to consent. That makes the situation extremely challenging, but not impossible.

Boys rescued in Mexico after being trafficked as prostitutes. Photo by Jodi Cobb.
Boys rescued in Mexico after being trafficked as prostitutes. Photo by Jodi Cobb.

In 2004, José Lorente, a geneticist at the University of Grenada, started a foundation called DNA-Prokids with the mission of building DNA databases that would help find missing children. The organization has since sent thousands of free DNA testing kits to authorities in 16 countries, preventing (according to the New York Times) 200 illegal adoptions and reuniting 550 children with their families. For example, Brenda Corado, a Guatemalan, found her daughter Angela thanks to DNA testing. As the Times reported:

Ms. Corado had been walking on the street with Angela, then 21 days old, when two men got out of a car, snatched the baby from her arms and beat her until she passed out. What the men intended to do with the child is unclear. But Dr. Lorente believes that they probably intended to make money putting the child up for adoption.

Two months later, however, an infant girl was abandoned at a Christian television station in Guatemala and, using DNA analysis, the police were able to identify that baby as Angela.

Some of the samples collected by DNA-Prokids are analyzed at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth — the same group that’s collaborating with the Dallas police on the Prostitute Diversion Initiative. Katsanis focused her commentary on these two programs, she says, because they’re examples of partnerships between government and academia. The academic scientists “are holding the information, and handling it, and then returning it back to the law enforcement community,” she says.

But what Katsanis would really like to understand, she says, “is how this could be done outside of government, especially when we’re collecting from innocent people.”

Take those Texas prostitutes, who will never personally benefit from their DNA testing. The police have good reasons for this. “They have to keep a chain of custody. They have to protect those samples because those samples might become evidence,” Katsanis explains. And that’s obviously important. But if non-government parties — human rights organizations, for example — knew more about the possible uses of DNA testing, perhaps they could also get involved at the time of collection, and perhaps set up a system of analysis and storage that’s separate from law enforcement.

That’s probably a fanciful scenario, at least for now, Katsanis says. “The most challenging aspect is trying to figure out a way to infiltrate the community that is working directly with trafficked victims, for them to even be aware that this is an option.”

This comment really surprised me. Why not just reach out to the big NGOs and foundations and tell them all about DNA? “I think there’s a distrust among the care providers that DNA is a law enforcement tool and not a victim advocacy tool,” she says.

A lot of issues swirling around DNA boil down to trust, don’t they? You might trust a consumer genetics company to keep your DNA information secure, for example, or you might trust a medical center to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood. But do you trust the government with your DNA?

I asked Katsanis whether she would ever contribute a DNA sample to a U.S. government database. She replied with a swift and certain, “No,” and then told me a story about the day she gave a lecture on DNA to some police officers in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“After I lectured to them, I said, ‘What do you guys think of a universal database? Should we just put everybody in it?’,” she recalls. “They said, ‘You mean me, too?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you too.’ And they said, ‘Oh no, not at all, not ever. I don’t trust the police. I don’t trust us to not misuse that DNA’.”


Find out more about human protections and DNA (and download full case studies of the Prostitute Diversion Initiative and DNA-Prokids) at Katsanis’s group’s website.