Female-led research team innovates kit to distinguish menstrual from circulatory blood in crimes against women
An all-women team of BYU undergraduate research scientists is revolutionizing the landscape of forensics in domestic violence cases. As a part of the Jenkins Lab of epigenetics, the team is developing a kit that will allow criminal investigators to distinguish menstrual from circulatory blood, which has direct applications to violent crimes against women.
In the United States, the prevalence of domestic violence is strikingly high. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly twenty people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute. As such, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
“In domestic violence cases against women, it’s very common for the perpetrator, who is usually male, to claim that any blood at the crime scene is menstrual blood and not blood borne of violence. They do this in an effort to discredit the woman’s testimony,” says Kelaney Stalker (PWS ’24), the lead undergraduate researcher. “And right now, because forensic scientists can’t definitively tell the difference between circulatory and menstrual blood, it’s a viable defense.”
Ryan Barney (CELL ’23), a PhD candidate and forensic scientist professional, affirms, “Differentiating between circulatory and menstrual blood is one of the things that has traditionally been hard in the forensics world.”
“What we want to do is be able to differentiate between menstrual and circulatory blood so in cases like this, forensic scientists can take a swab of the blood and prove that it’s not menstrual blood but a result of violence in the home,” Stalker says. “This is something that nobody’s been able to do before.”
The researchers are currently developing a kit to accurately make this distinction.
If this has never been done before, how is the Jenkins Lab tackling the issue? The answer lies in cell-free DNA.
All cells, to some degree, release little fragments of their own DNA, called cell-free DNA, into their surroundings. But every cell in the body contains the same exact copy of DNA, so differentiating between DNA from menstrual versus circulatory blood requires more information. What makes cells from different tissues distinct from each other is not the DNA itself but the regions of the DNA (genes) that are “active” and used to produce proteins. Whether or not a gene is active is determined by chemical modifications added to the DNA called methylations. These are detectable in the lab.
Over the past few years, the Jenkins Lab has engaged in identifying tissues by their unique DNA methylation patterns. Thus far, the lab has successfully identified DNA from sperm and neurons in the brain and is now attempting to identify DNA from the endometrial lining that is shed during menstruation.
Throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle, the endometrium lining of her uterus builds up in preparation for pregnancy. If a fertilized egg does not implant, the lining sheds, resulting in the bleeding we know as menstruation.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” says Dr. Timothy Jenkins, a physiology professor and head of the Jenkins Lab. “We’re really just looking for dead endometrial cells by their DNA. Their presence or absence is the main difference between the endometrial lining of the uterus and circulatory blood, so we’re focusing on that.”
In other words, if endometrial DNA is present in the sample, it came from menstrual blood, and if endometrial DNA is undetectable, then it came from circulatory blood.
In spring 2022, Stalker, who had been a member of the Jenkins Lab for over two years, overheard Jenkins and Barney discussing this as a potential project. She immediately saw the impact it could have on women, so she inquired about it.
After a couple of meetings with Dr. Jenkins, Stalker knew exactly what needed to be done to get the ball rolling. She wrote the entire ethical review (IRB) application necessary for research involving human subjects and submitted it for evaluation. While IRB protocols typically take months to get approved, Stalker’s protocol was approved within a few weeks, allowing her to begin recruiting study participants in the fall of 2022.
Jenkins recounts, “Stalker totally grabbed the bull by the horns and worked in the lab all summer to get the IRB approved and set the whole project up.”
While IRB protocols typically take months to get approved, Stalker’s protocol was approved within a few weeks.
In the meantime, Stalker contacted BYU’s School of Nursing to pitch her idea. Once she had permission, she recruited phlebotomists to perform the blood draws and enrolled participants from across campus.
Since then, Stalker’s team has collected circulatory and menstrual blood samples from approximately fifty women and processed the samples in the lab. From the gathered data, the team has accurately distinguished menstrual from circulatory blood using endometrial-specific DNA methylation patterns.
Jenkins and Stalker are currently finalizing data analysis. They are working on turning their technology into a usable kit and submitting a patent application to enable clinical use as soon as possible. They also hope to find other applications for the kit, such as forensics in rape cases—90% of which are perpetrated against women.
“I believe in the power of women,” Stalker says. “I think we need more data that includes women, and products to solve women’s issues.”
Especially in the past, data from biomedical research performed in the United States has largely underrepresented women. Even today, women’s health issues remain largely underfunded and understudied.
We need more data that includes women, and products to solve women’s issues.
“There’s a gap in our understanding of women’s health issues,” Stalker states. “I think we need to include more women in research, and I feel really passionately that closing the gap is something I want to be a part of.”
Stalker also reflects, “Without women, this project would not have been possible. The three other students in the lab helping me with the DNA methylation work, the two phlebotomists we recruited from the nursing school, and everyone we recruited from BYU to collect blood samples from were all women. It’s really cool that this project is meant for women and is coming about because of women. It has been really rewarding to see women come together to solve this problem and hopefully make a big difference.”
“I would really love to take the things I’m studying in the lab and use them in developing countries,” Stalker says. “I think when you want to do good and are really trying, then you get opportunities. I hope that my DNA identification research project to distinguish between menstrual and circulatory blood and my future career can put some good in the world.”
After graduation, Stalker plans to continue her human genomics studies in graduate school. She hopes to work at a biotechnology company that is centered on women’s health and offers nonprofit opportunities where she can apply her studies in international development and impact the world for good.