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Fingertip diagnosis: can fingerprints do more than just solve crimes?

  • Story Highlights
  • Fingerprints can now be used to diagnose some diseases
  • A person's prints can tell scientists if they smoke, take drugs
  • Analysis picks up traces of chemicals in sweat residue
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By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- Fingerprinting has long been a staple of the fight against crime. What murder scene would be complete without someone in a white suit methodically dusting furniture surfaces for traces of the killer's touch?

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Now, however, it seems the humble fingerprint could be just as useful to doctors and drug-testers as it is to detectives.

Pioneering research in the UK has demonstrated that a person's fingerprints can be used not only to identify whether they were present at the scene of a crime, but also whether they smoke, take illegal drugs, wear aftershave or even suffer from certain diseases.

The research has been carried out by a joint team from the Norwich-based University of East Anglia, and London's King's College, led by David A. Russell, a chemistry professor specializing in analytical bio-nanotechnology, and forensic science expert Dr. Sue Jickells.

Their work has shown that fingerprints, specifically the sweat residue contained in fingerprints, can reveal an awful lot about the person to whom that print belongs.

"You can not only use a fingerprint to help build a physical profile of a criminal," Professor Russell told CNN, "But also to help with sports' testing and, in principle, the diagnosis of various health conditions such as heart disease and certain cancers."

The team's findings, recently published in the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, have attracted considerable attention, notably from the British government, which has been swift to recognize their potential both for law enforcement and also disease screening.

The use of fingerprints as a means of identification goes back a very long way.

Ancient Babylonian legal contracts, for example, dating from almost 4000 years ago, have been discovered with finger impressions on their clay surface to mark the identities of those making the contract.

Ancient Greek and Roman potters likewise sometimes left identifying finger marks their works, in much the same way as a modern artist will sign their name at the bottom of a painting.

It was not until the late 19th Century, however, that the idea of using fingerprints to identify criminals was first considered.

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In 1880 Englishman Dr. Henry Faulds published a paper in the scientific journal Nature in which he wrote that "bloody finger-marks or impressions on clay or glass may lead to the scientific identification of criminals."

A decade later, in 1892, another Englishman, Sir Francis Galton, published a book titled, succinctly, "Finger Prints," in which he provided a detailed analysis of how such prints could be used in crime solving.

On the back of such works fingerprint analysis swiftly developed into a cornerstone of forensic science, employed both by real detectives -- the world's first official Fingerprint Bureau opened in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, in 1897 -- and fictional ones as well, notably the legendary Sherlock Holmes.

While such analysis has helped in the solving of many famous cases, however, it has one, if not fatal flaw, at least drawback -- a fingerprint left at the scene of a crime is only useful if it can be matched either to a physical suspect or else a similar print on a database.

In other words the print only becomes useful when you have someone, or something with which to compare it. On its own it is useless.

All that looks set to change with Dr. Russell's work, which has moved the forensic focus away from the actual physical shape of the print -- the curving pattern of ridges and grooves that is unique to each individual -- and onto its chemical composition.

"The fingerprints that you find on a window, glass or television screen are made up of 98 percent water," Dr. Russell explained to CNN. "Specifically, the sweat coming out of our bodies.

"In that sweat you find traces of metabolites that can provide us with a lot of what you might term 'lifestyle intelligence' about a particular individual."

Russell's team demonstrated how such "lifestyle intelligence" could be teased out of a fingerprint by focusing on cotinine, a metabolite produced by the nicotine in cigarettes (a metabolite is the end result of the breaking down by the human body of a particular molecule, in this case nicotine).

Russell first wet the test fingerprint with a solution containing gold particles coated with cotinine-specific antibodies.

These antibodies bind themselves to the cotinine in the print. It is then washed with another solution, this one containing fluorescent molecules tagged with a secondary antibody that adheres to the existing cotinine antibodies.

"The result is that when you look at the print under a fluorescent microscope the cotinine will show up," explains Russell, "Thereby demonstrating whether the person who left the print is a smoker or not."

By washing the fingerprint with solutions containing different types of target antibodies Russell's team have shown it is possible to home in on other types of information such as whether the fingerprint's owner has taken a particular type of drug, or whether they wear aftershave (although not, as yet, what brand of aftershave).

In short, the fingerprint can now be used not only as a matching tool, but as a means of building up a physical profile as well.

As Russell wrote in his Angewandte Chemie article: "It is is possible to obtain direct chemical information from drugs or drug metabolites present in minute quantities of sweat deposited with a latent fingerprint.

"Such information could prove vital to focus police investigations."

It is not only in the field of crime detection, however, that the work of Russell and his colleagues could have a profound impact.

Drug screening in sport and the workplace is another area that could be revolutionized by this new form of fingerprint analysis.

"Currently drug testing in sport requires a urine sample," says Russell, "And there is always the danger of that sample getting mixed up or attributed to the wrong person.

"Testing from fingerprints means that the result can always be perfectly matched with the person who has provided the print, leaving no room for error."

An even more exciting application, although one that at present remains purely theoretical, is in the field of medicine and health screening.

"There have been a number of examples of dogs being able to sniff out disease," says Russell.

"One recent report, for instance, involved a dog repeatedly sniffing a particular area of its owner's leg, and the owner turned out to have a cancer in that area.

"Are there biological markers in sweat that are indicative of a particular type of disease, and that dogs, with their heightened sense of smell, are able to pick up?

"And if so, could those biological markers be detected by fingerprint analysis? It is certainly something we are actively exploring."

A new era of crime detection and healthcare, it seems, could be just round the corner. Or, more appropriately, at our fingertips. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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