One version of the new technology relies on what’s known as “paper-spray mass spectrometry.” Mass spectrometry turns molecules into ions, or charged particles, then sorts them by mass to identify them. You’ve probably seen airport-security personnel use mass spectrometers for bomb detection, for example, when your hand or luggage is swabbed after going through a metal detector or body scanner.
“We chose paper-spray mass spectrometry because it’s gaining popularity in forensics because it is incredibly sensitive and very easy to set up a testing system,” said Catia Costa, an analytical chemist and liaison fellow at the University of Surrey’s Ion Beam Center. Costa is the lead author of the recently published paper. This is the first time that paper-spray mass spectrometry has been successfully used to detect drugs in fingerprints, Costa told me.
“It’s been well known over the past few years that you can tell what people have ingested based on the sweat secreted at their fingertips,” Costa explained. If a person has taken cocaine, for example, Costa said, the technology can detect this based on the structure of cocaine and the presence of metabolites, “which suggest the cocaine has been through the body.”
The University of Surrey research was co-funded by a biometric-diagnostics firm called Intelligent Fingerprinting, which has developed what is believed to be the world’s first portable, fingerprint-based drug-detection system. The diagnostics firm was founded more than a decade ago by David Russell, an emeritus professor of the School of Chemistry at the University of East Anglia who pioneered the detection of ingested substances in fingerprints.
The new portable test works much like a home pregnancy test. It uses antibodies to detect specific classes of drugs of abuse, explained Jerry Walker, a biochemist and chief executive for the company. “One detects opiates, another detects amphetamines, another detects cocaine, and another THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana,” he said.
The company’s portable, rapid drug-screening system is currently being used in some drug-treatment centers to determine whether patients on opioid-substitution therapy are using heroin, cocaine, or other drugs, according to Walker. It’s also being used in several pilot studies by medical examiners in the United Kingdom to determine cause of death, Walker said. And while the tests cannot quantify the amount of a substance ingested, nor when it was taken, the company believes that criminal-justice applications—law enforcement, courts, probation, prisons, and, perhaps one day, roadside drug testing—could eventually become its largest market.
Executives are particularly interested in markets in the United States and Canada.
“We think our technology would be a very good deterrent because prison authorities could walk into a cell at any time” to conduct a drug test and have results within minutes, Walker told me. “You could potentially sweep an entire prison wing within hours as opposed to days or months.”