Ingrid Gudmundsson
HID & Forensics

Bringing closure to families

A new NGS workflow allows identification of missing persons from the most difficult samples.

All over the world, there are unfortunate cases of relatives, friends and colleagues who go missing. Being able to identify victims through DNA analyses can provide answers to those who are missing loved ones and this is the basis behind icmp.

When an earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, more than 230,000 people lost their lives. Ingrid Gudmundsson recounts hearing the news at home in Sweden – knowing that her daughter and grandchild were in Thailand at that moment.

According to estimates, 5,000 persons were killed by the catastrophic wave and floods on the beaches of the popular holiday destination alone. “I tried to call my daughter on the phone but there was no answer,” recalls Ingrid. Convincing herself that it was not possible that something had happened to her daughter, “because she was young, strong and athletic.” The tsunami of 2004 is just one of many tragic stories of massive loss of life, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unidentified victims. Vietnam, for instance, plans to identify the remains of the 300,000 people missing following the 20 years of war that engulfed the country. More than 40,000 people were missing after the war in former Yugoslavia, as were scores of victims after the 9/11 attacks in the United States or the civil war in Colombia.

More than 900 victims of the 2004 Thailand tsunami have been identified through the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Among them are Linda, her father and her daughter Mira – finally giving Linda’s mother Ingrid Gunmundsson the closure she was looking for.
You can’t cure anything, but it can help alleviate some of the fundamental causes of ongoing trauma.

Today, more than 100,000 people are listed as missing in Syria. And everywhere relatives, friends and colleagues have to live without knowing what happened to their loved ones, hoping for the day when their uncertainty comes to an end.

Finding these answers is the task of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Supported by QIAGEN with expertise and equipment since 2001, the ICMP has built a state-of-the-art DNA laboratory system for the sole purpose of identifying missing persons. Dr. Thomas Parsons leads the technical processes. The ICMP’s director of science and technology is no stranger to the tragedy of missing family members. Before joining the ICMP, he was chief scientist for the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and served on a National Institute of Justice advisory panel for DNA identification efforts following the 9/11 attacks. He recognizes the value of his work to families. “Doing our job correctly and getting our work done changes the experience for these traumatized people,” he says. “You can’t cure anything, but it can help alleviate some of the fundamental causes of ongoing trauma.”

ICMP was created at the 1996 G-7 Summit to address the issue of persons missing as a consequence of the conflicts in the Western Balkans. Its specialized DNA laboratory provides a global resource for high-throughput standing capacity in DNA testing and family matching of missing persons from any context. For more information visit

In Thailand, the widespread destruction, flooding and decay after the tsunami seemed to make it almost impossible to identify the victims and give certainty to those with missing loved ones. So far more than 900 victims have been identified through the work of the ICMP in Thailand. Among them are Linda, her father and her daughter Mira – finally giving Ingrid the closure she was looking for.

In Ingrid’s case, her genetic material was the link to the DNA of her missing family members, and victims’ DNA samples could be compared to hers. It took seven months until the former school teacher would know for sure that her daughter, grandchild and former husband were killed by the tsunami. For Ingrid it was “a very long time waiting there, but when they came home, yes, I was thankful, really thankful. And I think it is important for everyone who misses someone, that they get them identified. It means a lot.”

The civil war in Syria has cost an estimated 500,000 lives. Muhanad Abdul Husn, an engineer from Syria, is working with the ICMP to research the social context of genocide. He himself does not know the fate of friends, colleagues and relatives, and wants to help the families of more than 100,000 persons registered as "missing" in Syria.

Changing the game in the field of human ID – the new GeneReader testing panel

The lab has been able to close many cases, but its systems are reaching their limits. In many instances, a limiting factor is how many family members are available and to what degree they are related to the victim. That’s why open cases remain, and the clock is ticking.

September 2016

ICMP and QIAGEN announced the joint development of the world’s first NGS-based test specifically for the identification of missing persons, running on the GeneReader NGS System.

December 2017

ICMP opened its new headquarters in The Hague, including a brand new laboratory equipped with the GeneReader workflow.

November 2018

First results from the new ICMP GeneReader Missing Persons workflow show that the panel enables an unmatched level of discrimination, allowing DNA human identifications from several victims of the Balkans conflict.

Dr. Thomas Parsons, Director of the ICMP laboratory
Dr. Thomas Parsons, Director of the ICMP laboratory, The Hague / Netherlands
With NGS we are able to make an identification with even a single relative as far distant as first cousin.

Every day of waiting is a day of uncertainty for those who are missing loved ones. The ICMP therefore sought to improve its technology. In October 2017 it opened a brand new DNA identification laboratory in The Hague that uses the GeneReader NGS System from QIAGEN. Keith Elliott, associate director strategic marketing HID at QIAGEN, says: “Next-generation sequencing is much more suitable for highly degraded samples, and GeneReader offers unique capabilities for exactly that kind of analysis.”

QIAGEN’s GeneReader NGS System covers all steps of the laboratory workflow, from sample extraction to the final DNA analysis. Both partners have developed a dedicated testing panel running on the system specifically designed for applications in human identification. Dr. Thomas Parsons says: “With this approach we would be able to make an identification with even a single relative as far distant as first cousin. And this is very much a game changer in some complex disaster victim identification cases or other post-conflict events where it is simply not possible to achieve so many reference samples in order to make the identifications.”

First study results support this assumption. While previous technologies required a reference sample from a parent, a child or a sibling to verify DNA identities, now a 1st or potentially even a 2nd degree cousin relationship would do. Dr. Parsons calls this a “paradigm shift.” And yet another benefit strikes the experts: With the new test method even the smallest DNA fragments can be analyzed, allowing to finally unveil the identity behind old samples from World War II or the armed conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s.

The work of the ICMP in collaboration with QIAGEN can give certainty and help to hold those who are responsible for political crimes accountable. But most of all, it gives all the relatives of missing people the chance to leave the past behind and carry on with their lives – or as Ingrid says: “For me it meant everything I can say. Because I could leave the thoughts and feelings in my head. And when I heard the fact ‘here they are’ and yes, I was even thankful for that. So it’s a very important job they are doing here at the ICMP.”