by Ditsa Keren

Introducing M-Vac - The DNA Vacuum That Solves Crime

Introducing M-Vac - The DNA Vacuum That Solves Crime

The M-Vac System is a vacuum machine especially designed to extract DNA off porous and rough surfaces, allowing forensic investigators, analysts and CSI to reveal crucial evidence and solve crime cases that would otherwise go cold or misinterpreted. In this interview, President Jared Bradley reveals the unusual story behind the company, and portrays the invaluable benefits that the M-Vac brings into the table.

Please describe the story behind the M-Vac: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?

I grew up in Jerome, Idaho, a small town with only about 6000 people and a big dairy industry. My dad was a PhD in microbiology and animal sciences, and he had a small service lab there for the beef and dairy industry.

In 1993, there was an E Coli outbreak, mostly in Jack in the Box burgers along the west coast of the US. It killed six kids and hospitalized another 140 people. Having been involved with the beef industry his entire life, it really bothered my dad, so he started looking at the problem, determined to find out where the breakdown had taken place. 

Even though they had PCR devices and all sorts of technology that could detect the bacteria once it was put into the devices, there hadn’t been as much focus on the collection end as in the other areas. Back then, the primary collection methods were swabbing, cuttings, and using a small sponge to collect the surface bacteria.

Dad realized that if you want to get down into the cracks and crevices of any surface, you need to have a more aggressive method, and a wet-vacuum system made sense. It’s like comparing a broom and a carpet cleaner. If you want to get down into the fibers of the carpet, you use a carpet cleaner. It sprays the solution, and the vacuum pressure creates a mini-vortex that enables you to pull the dirt out of the carpet. A broom would only get the dirt sitting on the top.

He thought the same idea would work well with bacteria, and that’s how the M-Vac came to be. Since then we learned it also works with spores like Anthrax, viruses, and of course, DNA.

My personal journey took me far away from Jerome and everything my Dad was developing.  After I graduated high school, I joined the Army National Guard, went to college for a year, and then spent two years in Japan on a religious mission. When I got back, I returned to college where I studied biology and organic chemistry with a pre-med focus. After I graduated, I was on active duty in the Army for 3 years, then bounced between numerous sales jobs and ended up in the pharmaceutical industry, where I stayed for about seven years. 

During that time, my dad had been developing the M-Vac at night after work and funding it all by himself.  In 2002 he finally raised some grant money for R&D from the NIH and DoD, and was able to devote his efforts full time. Just when I was ready to move on from the pharmaceutical industry, he was ready to bring on a sales manager to launch the product, and that’s when I got involved with the M-Vac.

We launched the product in 2007 in the food industry. It worked extremely well, but we quickly realized our product didn’t really fit with what our customers were trying to do. The M-Vac collected surface bacteria at a higher level than what they were accustomed to. It threw their calculations off too much so they rejected it.  

Around the end of 2011, a friend named Carol called us with the idea that our system would work really well in the forensics industry, collecting DNA off of evidence. We looked into it and in 2012 we pivoted.  We transitioned into forensics, and we haven’t looked back since. 

Since then, we’ve had our system tested by Boston University, UC Davis, Cedar Crest College, and a few other all big forensics universities here in the States. The FBI has also tested it and got phenomenal results. 

We’ve been working with all sorts of agencies that have used the M-Vac to solve cases. They’ve been able to collect DNA from a variety of surfaces and I’ve had numerous detectives, CSIs and even sheriffs tell me that without our product, they never would have solved their cases.

How Does the M-Vac System work?

The carpet cleaner analogy is more than just effectiveness, it’s literally how it works. It sprays the solution in the middle of the sampling head and applies vacuum pressure along the outside of it. The vacuum pressure surrounds the liquid, creating a mini hurricane that sucks out whatever it is you’re looking for, whether that’s skin cells, saliva or blood. 

For example, the FBI showed that even after swabbing, the M-Vac could come back along the same area that had already been swabbed, and still collect up to 46 times more DNA than the swab. The average across the entire FBI study was 12X, but it fluctuated depending on the surface and what they were looking for. It’s not so much about the scrubbing action, it’s more about the combination of the solution and vacuum pressure that creates the turbulence, which is what enables the cellular material to be collected.

How does your product impact the investigation process?

It’s awesome for any investigation that gets stuck. One of the mantras we push when we train our customers is that if you can visibly see a stain, like a blood spatter or a semen stain, you don’t need the M-Vac. There’s so much DNA there you could collect with a swab or spoon without needing the M-Vac. But if you can’t see it, or you’ve already tried the other methods and didn’t get the result you wanted, that’s where the M-Vac excels. Even if you swab something, there’s still a significant amount of DNA material left on the surface, which the M-Vac can most likely collect. I think that expanded vision is what investigators are the most excited about because they know that even if all the traditional methods fail, they now have another option.

Before the M-Vac came along, investigators they would try different physical methods that go along the top of the surface, or cuttings if the evidence is cloth. Now they also have the M-Vac, which is a more aggressive tool that gives them more options. What most detectives and investigators want is to have another shot at it. If all the leads they currently have dry out, all they want is one more lead to follow up on, so having another option at DNA evidence is pretty exciting for them.

Can you describe a case where the M-Vac turned an investigation around?

Absolutely, there’s a ton of them, but I will tell you about the first case that put us on the map. It was the case of a troubled 17-year-old victim who turned to drugs and prostitution. They found her naked body next to the Provo River in Midway Utah in mid-December, 1996.  At that time of year, in the middle of the night, the temperature is about minus 12 Celsius. She had been running down a little service road, with no clothes on. As you can imagine, she must have been terrified to do that. 

About 300 meters down, she stopped and sat down on a rock, and that’s when the suspect caught up with her and beat her to death with sharp granite rocks. There were six rocks in total that had a lot of blood on them, but it was obvious that two of them had caused most of the damage. Granite rocks are porous with very rough,  sharp edges.  Over the years they tried swabbing the rocks multiple times but had gotten no positive results. 

It became a cold case for about 18 years until the detectives finally learned about the M-Vac. They contacted a local lab, asking to try this new wet-vacuum system. It only takes about half a nanogram of DNA to produce a good profile. The lab collected 21 nanograms, 42 times more than what they needed to produce a good profile. 

For 18 years, those rocks had just sat in an evidence locker, until they finally were able to use the M-Vac on it and turned the entire case around. It was one of those cases where the sheriff said if it wasn’t for the M-Vac, they would have never solved that case because they had no leads, witnesses, or other evidence. We see cases like this all over the world.

How come the M-Vac isn’t a standard piece of equipment in law enforcement systems?

If you can answer that question I would love to know what it is. The people who use it, Broward County, for example, say they won’t respond to a major crime, especially a homicide, without the M-Vac. They don’t always use it at the crime scene, but when they need it, they need it desperately. The agencies that have our device are always grateful to have it. Why is it not a standard piece of equipment with every major agency? We’ve been trying to answer that question for eight years now.

Obviously, we have a lot of work to do. There are agencies all over the world that need this system and don’t have it yet. As a whole, there are only a few hundred M-Vac systems worldwide. Now that the FBI data is out, it’s given it a lot of credibility and it’s starting to catch up. 

That being said, the forensics industry moves very slowly. It takes several years to get any traction off of new technology. We have a lot of work to do as far as getting the word out and showing people what the M-Vac can do for them. 

What are some trends or technologies you find to be particularly interesting these days around your line of work?

There are three basic steps that I look at for forensics DNA. You have the collection end, which is where the M-Vac is; the processing, which is where all the lab equipment is; and the deciphering end. It seems to me that there are new processes that go in the processing where instead of STR, they’re looking at SNP, which is a different area of the DNA. 

I have a videocast called All Things Crime where I interviewed David Middleman, the president of Othram Inc., whose understanding of DNA is off the charts. His lab in Houston, Texas is focused on 10,000 markers, as opposed to the typical 20 markers you get with STR. His ability to identify certain individuals within a minute is amazing. So I think those developments are extremely interesting. 

The genealogical side is also very interesting, where they look at genealogy trees to find relatives of the suspects. That’s how they caught the Golden State Killer, which is just one of many examples.

Another interesting technology is probabilistic genotyping. Instead of having just manual interpretations of different DNA profiles, they run them through algorithms and get a much higher probability of whose DNA it is. Probabilistic genotyping is particularly beneficial to use alongside the M-Vac because it enables you to make the most out of the DNA it collects. 

Interestingly, the entire lab process is set up so that the vast majority of sensitivity is in the lab process. They try to get more and more sensitive so that instead of having 100 nanograms of DNA material, they’ll be down to 10 nanograms. When you increase the sensitivity that much, and then you come along with the M-Vac, it throws that process off. So, having probabilistic genotyping on the processing end helps to decipher a possible mixture, and that is really important. They’re getting much cleaner profiles now because M-Vac is providing more DNA material and the lab folks can decipher it on the backend. I think investigations as a whole are really benefiting from all of that.

What are your future plans for M-Vac?

The forensics industry, and DNA in particular, is rapidly changing and advancing, and we’re excited to be at the forefront of that. Teaming up with a large forensics company that might be able to take the M-Vac further is always an option, but right now we’re just forging ahead as always. With COVID, we can’t go to conferences, so in the meantime, we’re moving a lot of stuff online. We’re always posting updates on our website and our Facebook page, but LinkedIn particularly is where we’re focused. I welcome readers to connect with me on LinkedIn and ask me anything. Also subscribe to our videocast, All Things Crime!  We have lots of good interviews there and talk extensively about the M-Vac, forensics, policing, and investigations.

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About Author
Ditsa Keren
Ditsa Keren

Ditsa Keren is a technology blogger and entrepreneur with a strong passion for biology, ecology and the environment. In recent years, Ditsa has been specializing in technical and scientific writing, covering topics like biotechnology, algae cultivation, nutrition, and women's health.

Ditsa Keren is a technology blogger and entrepreneur with a strong passion for biology, ecology and the environment. In recent years, Ditsa has been specializing in technical and scientific writing, covering topics like biotechnology, algae cultivation, nutrition, and women's health.