Czech DNA-based test helping to identify war victims

A unique Czech DNA-based test has been helping to identify the remains of victims who were murdered during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of the Czech Republic's top experts in forensic genetics and one of the authors of the method, Daniel Vanek headed a team of researchers in Bosnia between 2002 and 2004.

"The whole story started at the end of 2001 when I arrived for a short visit to Bosnia to visit my colleagues from ICMT (International Commission for Missing Persons) and I was to help them to improve the extraction technique to extract DNA in a proper quality from bone samples that were some 10 and 12 years old in order to perform DNA identification using STI markers, that means markers that are common in forensic practice the police is using for solving the crime."

"Because the previous methods are focused on so-called mitochondrial DNA but the ability to uniquely identify person is very low. So that's why we needed to create a robust DBNA extraction from bones and apply it on those thousands and thousand of bones from mass graves on the Balkan."

So how does the identification work? Can you describe the process?

"You need to have two sets of data - it means DNA profiles from living relatives - so we were collecting reference blood samples and creating DNA profiles because each of us has a unique DNA profile. If you find a DNA profile of an unknown person you can easily once you have all data set the identity of the person. We were basically returning names to unknown bodies."

And how accurate is the method?

"The probability is above 99 percent. It is very accurate. Plus anthropologist determine age of the victim, the gender personal items found with the body. All pieces of evidence must match one person. So it's not only DNA but also other methods."

"Imagine that the war has ended and you are still missing your loved ones. The story still continues in your memory you are still returning to the wartime. But once you find the body the story ends and you can bury the remains. The families are glad: it's over. We know what the fate of our son was. Now we can start living again. He is dead but we have to go on."

Are there still samples to be tested?

"I think 98 000 people are missing from the Balcans in connection with that war and I think there are some 20 or 30 000 DNA profiles from bones in the ICMT database and only some 11 000 were identified."