Federal grant will help VCU researchers build forensics business to serve national crime labs

Pictured: 3D fluorescent samples from VCU researcher Chris Ehrhardt’s lab showing autofluorescence of epidermal cells recovered from ‘touch’ evidence samples. Credit: T. Simmons-Ehrhardt.

August 2023

A VCU startup that is developing technologies to improve forensic investigations has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The $270,578 Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award to Rapid Forensic Cell Typing will help the company develop technology that can analyze “non-genetic attributes” of cells within forensic evidence, explains VCU researcher Christopher Ehrhardt, Ph.D., a co-investigator on the project and professor in the Department of Forensic Science at the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

“It will allow forensic labs to quickly determine the value of a sample before it gets to DNA profiling, which can make crime labs more efficient and reduce delays in the legal system,” he says. 

Rapid Forensic Cell Typing’s tech uses flow cytometry, which rapidly analyzes fluorescent and scattered light signals produced by cells and particles as they flow past a laser beam. The signals are analyzed through machine learning algorithms that compare the properties to a massive database of cells which can differentiate cells from individuals based on biological factors such as ancestry, age, or presence of environmental compounds. The company’s technology is used to provide information about biological samples before time-consuming and expensive DNA testing is performed.

As a company, Rapid Forensic Cell Typing plans to provide an online subscription to crime labs that will give them access to the technology. Initially, RFCT will conduct lab testing and analysis to attract trial users and build new business. The company’s intellectual property is protected by VCU TechTransfer and Ventures.

“Our project addresses two societal issues within the justice system: An individual's constitutional right to a speedy trial, and inherent human biases in law enforcement when gathering and processing evidence,” said Martha “Kate” Philpott, the study’s principal investigator and affiliate faculty in the Department of Forensic Science. 

Backlogs in processing DNA evidence can lead to extended jail time for individuals who are presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise, explains Philpott, who specializes in strategic litigation related to the forensic sciences. 

In addition, the number of people exonerated by the re-analysis of forensic evidence after serving years in prison rises every year, underscoring the potential impact that testing decisions have for individuals, families, and society at large, she says.

“Our project hopes to reduce the number of samples tested and the potential for sample selection bias by rapidly identifying which samples may be of value to the investigation and thus warrant DNA testing,” Philpott says. “It aims to prevent undue delays in the legal system and ultimately improve the quality and reliability of forensic DNA analysis.”