Fingerprint device could detect illegal drug use

Police officers could soon be able to detect illegal drug use with a device that analyses a suspect’s fingerprints.

The technology, developed by University of East Anglia (UEA) spin-out company Intelligent Fingerprinting, uses a substance that reacts with molecules excreted in the sweat that makes up fingerprints to confirm the presence of a drug.

An officer at a crime scene will be able to insert a collected fingerprint into the device, which will confirm whether drugs are present within 15 minutes, without the need to return the sample to a lab.

‘If the police have a fingerprint and there’s no match on a database then the fingerprint is pretty pointless to the police,’ company founder Prof David Russell told The Engineer.

‘We can use this technology to show that this person has taken, for example, cocaine and that narrows down the list of suspects.’

It could also act as the equivalent of an alcohol breathalyser, detecting drug use in suspects held by the police or in prisons.

The existing technology can detect cannabis, cocaine, heroin and heroin substitute methadone, but Russell believes that it could be expanded for use with other types of drugs monitored by the police, including ecstasy and amphetamines.

The device will use a microfluidic system to coat the fingerpint in a solution of antibody-covered particles that will change colour when the antibodies bind with molecules of a drug or drug metabolites. These are produced by the body when it ingests drugs and excreted in the sweat that makes up fingerprints.

This technique can be improved by adding a second fluorescently tagged antibody that changes the colour of the fingerprint again.

‘We are aware that, for some applications, sensitivity – low levels of detection – will be essential and fluorescence provides us with that sensitivity,’ said Russell.

Russell has already developed the process for use in the lab as an alternative to urine sample tests and estimates that a handheld device could be ready in six months.

The finished product will likely give a simple indication of whether or not drugs are present, although Russell said it might also display the treated fingerprint on a screen.

The initial work was research-council funded but Russell says he now has the backing of a variety of seed funds and venture capital firms.