FOR more than a century, fingerprints have been a vital piece of evidence for police to identify suspects and solve some of Britain’s most notorious crimes.
But research by academics is helping take technology into a whole new sphere of crimefighting. The work by Sheffield Hallam University means that fingerprints will not only tell police who a person is, but also what they have had to eat and drink and whether they were on drugs before a crime was committed.
The technology being used – called Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionisation Mass Spectrometry Imaging (MALDI-MSI) – traces drugs, hair and cleaning products in fingerprints.
It has been developed by Sheffield Hallam University’s Biomedical Research Centre (BMRC), led by Dr Simona Francese. The researchers are working with West Yorkshire Police officers, who are trialling the technology on fingerprints left at scenes of crime.
Police hope it will help them to build up a profile of an offender and their activity before committing a crime through the clues left in the chemical signature of their fingerprints.
Dr Francese said: “MALDI enables you to detect the chemistry of the finger marks so essentially what chemicals are present on finger marks.”
Giving an example of the fingerprinting technique, she said: “We found the presence of cocaine in traces, we also found the presence of cocaine metabolite.
“That is very good because it actually tells us immediately the person who left the mark has not just touched cocaine but actually ingested it.
“So that changes the forensic scenario very quickly.
“With food, I’ve tried that on my own fingerprints, I’ve drunk a cup of coffee, then looked at my own finger marks at a certain time, after 10 minutes, and could see a very clear signal for caffeine.
“We can tell not just what you’ve touched but what’s coming out through your body, and through the sweat.
“We’ve started with looking at determining the sex of offenders through the unique chemistry of the finger marks, and one of our biggest ambitions is to look at medical conditions, again from unique chemicals that are present through finger marks.”
The university team has been lifting marks from crimes and taking them back to laboratories to test.
MALDI-MSI, is a powerful technology which is normally used to map different molecules within tissue sections. It can also be used to produce several images of a person’s fingerprints – which are made up of materials from the surface of the skin and from “gland secretions”.
Dr Francese said: “Our collaboration with West Yorkshire Police takes us one step closer to our aim of getting MALDI-MSI integrated into standard forensic procedures at scenes of crime in the country. It is a valuable opportunity to be able to gather authentic evidence that demonstrates the efficiency of MALDI-MSI to be used in order to provide additional intelligence to the investigators in real casework.”
She added: “Because meals are made up of such complex components, it might not ever be possible to say, for example, that person ate meatballs for dinner.
“But things like garlic, which have strong chemical components, we might be able to detect. It’s really interesting and who knows what we may be able to tell in the future – I think this research may keep me going until my retirement.”