ELIZABETH, NJ – The Union County Prosecutor’s Office is requesting funding to purchase new laboratory equipment, which the office would use to address a five-year backlog of rape kits.

“We’re addressing a five-year backlog that the state has mandated, but we were ahead of the mandate,” said the county’s Acting Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo. “A backlog of all of the SAFE kits, which are really sex assault kits, to test for the potential for serial rapists that might be out there, offenders that may have been picked up on crimes since the initial offense that we have a sample for, [and] to test against those samples now that they’re now in CODIS (or Combined DNA Index System). So, it can solve cold cases and help us get through that backlog of five years of rape kits.”

Ruotolo is requesting a total of $304,812.89 to purchase automated liquid handlers and supplies from Tecan, a biotechnology company based in North Carolina. Tecan “develops, manufactures and distributes laboratory instruments and automation products for the biopharma, forensic and diagnostic industries,” according to the company’s official website

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The equipment, Ruotolo said, will be used along with existing machines in the laboratory to test samples related to sexual assaults and homicides in the county.

“We don’t want to replace [our existing machines], so we have to find a robot that will work within our existing equipment,” Ruotolo said. “As with a lot of the equipment in the lab, there are only certain companies that can actually make it, so we had two unsuccessful bids because they just couldn’t possibly fit within the machines that we currently own.”

“What these robots do is, there’s like a tray of biological samples,” she continued. “They’re in pipets, which are even smaller than test tubes, and at certain times, in order for the testing to be completed, the pipets need to be removed, and moved and shifted around. And when humans do it, they need to be there and time it right, and they can easily contaminate the samples, as opposed to the robots that can run all night, seven days a week.”

Ultimately, Ruotolo said, the equipment will improve the efficiency of her department.

“[The new equipment] will increase our ability to turn around cases,” Ruotolo said. “Turn them around faster, with less staffing, and with less human error.”