Dr Rebecca Dewey is a British Science Association Media Fellow, funded by University of Nottingham


Today at the British Science Festival, Dr Lisa Smith, Associate Professor in Criminology, together with Professor Mark Jobling from the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology at the University of Leicester, launched a first-of-its-kind, self-examination DNA swab. This small yet innovative device looks and works much like a conventional tampon applicator, and allows the victim of a sexual assault to collect their own DNA evidence.

The original methods for DNA fingerprinting were developed at the University of Leicester in the 1980s, and more recently, DNA profiling has superceded the original techniques. In the UK and other developed nations, DNA evidence is widely used for convictions for sexual violence. DNA evidence is mainly used in situations when a rape or sexual assault is committed by a stranger. DNA evidence can’t be used to prove or disprove consent, so is not suitable where sexual violence takes place when the attacker is known to the victim, such as in a relationship or other avenues of trickery or blackmail.

However, in in the developing world, or in situations of conflict or poverty, there is limited access to the resources, equipment or expertise that make DNA evidence recoverable. For example, an estimate of sexual assaults against women, men and children in the recent conflict in Yugoslavia is thought to be around 80,000 incidents between 1992 and 2005. Lack of DNA evidence leads to low rates of reporting and conviction, and therefore little deterrant, known as a “culture of impunity”.

Dr Smith explained: “We hope that this research will help to raise awareness of the issue of sexual violence against vulnerable people in developing countries, conflict and post-conflict settings, and displaced communities, and encourage international organisations to engage with innovative ways to use forensic science to give victims of sexual violence access to justice around the world.”

When designing the device, the researchers needed to consider proper placement to ensure gathering a usable sample, to ensure the comfort and hygiene of the victim, and the design must minimise contamination when packaging and storage of the sample. Dr Smith describes the device as “essentially a tampon applicator with a DNA swab inside it”.

Having conducted a pilot study in Leicester, the team are currently demonstrating the technique in the field by performing further studies in Nairobi. They chose to test in Kenya, as there is good legislation against sexual violence, but local authorities are resource-poor for gathering evidence. Prof Jobling said: “It’s exciting to be working on a project that aims to put that right by making cutting-edge DNA profiling methods available in Kenya, and ultimately in other parts of Africa and the developing world.”

There is still a capacity-building issue that needs to be addressed to improve the throughput of processing samples. Dr Smith and Prof Jobling are working with industrial collaborators Thermo Fisher Scientific and Copan Technologies to develop the infrastructure needed to process samples in a local laboratory rather than being reliant on shipping them back to the UK. Alongside this, they will be working with prosecutors, police and the United Nations, to distribute the devices to where they are needed the most.

The research will mean that evidence can be produced easily and discreetly, to bring justice to millions of victims globally. It is hoped that it will lead to increased prosecutions of rape in developing countries, which will in turn empower men, women and children to prosecute against sexual crimes.