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New test detects drug use from single fingerprint

Wednesday 3rd June 2015
A novel test could help to better police drug use and marks a new age of more efficient and accurate testing.
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A new test is capable of determining whether someone has ingested cocaine simply by using a fingerprint. It marks the first time that such a test has existed as it is accurate enough to distinguish between touching and actually ingesting the Class A drug.

The research, published in the journal Analyst, was led by a collaborative team of experts from the University of Surrey, Netherlands Forensic Institute (NL), the National Physical Laboratory, King's College London and Sheffield Hallam University.

They used different types of mass spectrometry to examine the fingerprints of people who had attended drug treatment services. The researchers tested the prints against saliva samples to see whether the two tests recorded the same result.

Previous fingerprint tests have only been able to show whether a person had touched cocaine, and not whether they have actually taken the drug, making it unreliable.

Lead author Dr Melanie Bailey from the University of Surrey said cocaine users excrete traces of benzoylecgonine and methylecgonine as they metabolise the drug, which can show up in a fingerprint.

The research involved spraying solvent onto the fingerprint slide - commonly called  Desorption Electrospray Ionisation (DESI) - to see whether substances were present. This technique has been used for a number of forensic applications, according to the team, but no other studies have managed to demonstrate drug use.

It is hoped that this same method could be used for a wide range of testing. Drug testing is used routinely by probation services, prisons, courts and other law enforcement agencies, but current methods are limited.

Blood testing, for example, needs trained staff, while there are privacy concerns surrounding urine testing. Both of these methods carry biological hazard dangers and there is often need for specific storage and disposal procedures, while they also have to be analysed off site.

"The beauty of this method is that, not only is it non-invasive and more hygienic than testing blood or saliva, it can't be faked," added Dr Bailey. "By the very nature of the test, the identity of the subject is captured within the fingerprint ridge detail itself."

Written by Megan Smith

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