Scientists in Newcastle could have made one of the largest leaps forward in crime scene investigation in decades.
Experts at Arro SupraNano, which is based in the Herschel Annex of Newcastle University, has created a new test that can give detailed information about a person just from one fingerprint, in minutes.
And such is the global interest in the new technique, which could save police huge amounts of time and money, that the firm is already winning awards for its work.
“A murder case could cost between £1m and £3m, with most of that in time and legwork,” said Arro’s managing director Eamonn Cooney, who describes existing fingerprinting techniques as a “pretty hitty-missy process.”
“But with this test you can say male or female, whether they are on medication, what their lifestyle is, are they taking or distributing drugs, or if they are a terrorists. And we can tell you that within minutes of a sample reaching the lab.
“If you took 100 suspects and had each of them take the test then you could narrow it down to two or three very quickly.
“Police say it has definite applications for serious crimes - murders, sexual assaults or arson.
“And we’ve even had defence attorneys in America come and ask whether they could use it to prove their clients are innocent.”
The technology behind the new powder - which its makers claim can alone improve the clarity of fingerprints by 40% - and test was first developed by Professor Frederick Rowell at Sunderland University in 2005, with Arro SupraNano founded in 2007.
After seven years of development by the firm, which employs six people, the powder launched in January and is now being sold around the world, with the patented analytic test set to go to market in the coming months.
The company recently received the Forensics and Expert Witness E Magazine’s annual product development award.
“Fingerprinting has not changed much in many years,” said Mr Cooney. “You go to a crime scene, brush with powder, lift the print with tape, take a photo and record it on a national database. But we’ve done two new things with nano particles.
“Our powder adheres much more closely to the ridges and troughs of a fingerprint, as the particles are chemically very sticky, which is really important as for comparison you’re looking for 12 to 20 points, and prints are often smudged, but you can now see the details much more clearly and there is less background staining.
“Then we decided to take it a step further because we found there is a lot of information of the fingertip itself.
“We can test for drugs, explosives or gun residue, or other substances that police might be interested in.
“Also when you ingest a medicine or drugs, they are metabolised and pass out through the pores of the skin as nano particles. Even if you drink a cup of coffee we can detect the caffiene. Or if you smoke.
“It’s also exciting because biomarkers can be detected for male and female. And we can lift that all from a crime scene with tape.”
But already the firm is looking beyond the purely law enforcement applications and into its potential to save lives.
“I used to watch Star Trek when I was young and there was an episode where a character put their finger on something and was told, ‘You’ve got X disease’ - and we’re getting there,” said Mr Cooney, whose firm is working closely with German mass spectrometry equipment manufacturer Bruker.
“Because of what you can find on the surface of the skin, this could be used medically - you might even be able to tell how a drug will perform before a person even takes it.
“It’s amazing what you can find through fingerprints.”