Cocaine is an illegal drug, although health care providers can use it for valid medical purposes, such as local anesthesia for some surgeries. Now, knowing if someone has used cocaine is as simple as taking their fingerprints.
Scientists from the University of Surrey developed a rapid and highly sensitive fingerprint test that can take just seconds to confirm whether someone has used cocaine. This new breakthrough comes as a result of the first large scale study of cocaine users and could pave the way for the detection of a range of other Class A substances. The research was carried out with partners from the Netherlands Forensic Institute and Intelligent Fingerprinting. The team, led by Dr Catia Costa and Dr Melanie Bailey, developed a new technique to analyse the levels of cocaine detected in the fingerprints.
They used chromatography paper to take the sample as part of a technique known as paper spray mass spectrometry. The study involved taking fingerprints from a group of patients seeking treatment at drug rehabilitation centres, as well as a larger group not known to be drug users. All of those taking part washed their hands before the test in a variety of ways, and then samples were collected on the prepared chromatography paper. The fingerprint is developed using chemicals, so that the ridges of the fingerprint (and therefore the identity of the donor) can be established prior to analysis. When someone has taken cocaine, they excrete traces of benzoylecgonine and methylecgonine as they metabolise the drug, and these chemical indicators are present in fingerprint residue.
It is anticipated that this technology could see the introduction of drug tests for law enforcement agencies to use within the next decade. Drug testing is used routinely by probation services, prisons, courts and other law enforcement agencies. However, traditional testing methods have limitations. Where bodily fluids are tested, there can be biological hazards and often a requirement for particular storage and disposal methods. The study is published in Clinical Chemistry.