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Dental software could ID disaster victims

  • Story Highlights
  • New software could help identify disaster victims
  • Computer compares dental X-rays to find similarities
  • Cuts number of X-rays that must be checked by hand by 95 percent
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(CNN) -- Dental records can be a useful tool for identifying victims of plane crashes, earthquakes and other mass-casualty disasters, but it's a tedious process that can take months.

The bottom set of images has been aligned using Phase-Only Correlation.

Japanese researchers this week said they've developed a new automated system that can find matches in seconds. They presented their findings at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Lead author Eiko Kosuge's father helped identify victims of the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines plane that killed 520 passengers and crew. She was 14 at the time.

It took three months to identify all of the bodies, she said.

"If this software is successfully used, all remains probably could have been done in a week," Kosuge told CNN through a translator.

Researchers used a technique called Phase-Only Correlation to digitally align the X-rays so they are easier to compare. They studied X-rays taken from 60 patients taken before and after dental treatments -- that worked out to 3,600 possible matches.

A computer looked for similarities between the sets of X-rays and spit out three possible matches for each patient. Video Watch high-tech forensic tricks »

Forensic experts still had to study the remaining X-rays, but Kosuge said it cut their workload by 95 percent.

Currently, dental identifications are done one at a time, with experts comparing each victim's X-rays to stacks of dental records.

Larry Kobilinsky, a forensic scientist at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the technology would be useful, but still had some drawbacks.

For one thing, you have to have something to match the X-rays to, which can be a problem in poorer countries where dental records aren't available.

The study authors recommend that governments and law enforcement agencies should expand their dental databases. They also said that military personnel should have records on file before they go to a war zone

In the JAL crash, Kosuge said authorities had dental records for 325 of the 520 victims.

Kobilinsky said DNA is the superior way to make a positive identification, but it's not the only way.

"At mass disasters, usually there is a team of people at such a scene working to identify victim," he said.

Authorities bring in teams of people to study DNA, fingerprints, dental records and bone fractures to look for possible matches, he said.

Those techniques are particularly important in cases where bodies are charred, which destroys DNA, or samples are contaminated.


"These are nice supplements and more technology will follow," Kobilinsky said.

Kosuge said the technology could be widely available within a year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Yuki Kaneshige contributed to this report.

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