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Fingerprint scanner can detect drugs in sweat

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A prototype fingerprint scanner has been developed that can detect the presence of opiates, cannabis, or cocaine in the sweat on a user's fingertip.

The device uses special cartridges to take a fingerprint, which are then processed using both chemical testing and a unique photo scanning system. This takes a high resolution image of the fingerprint and its residue, so that the output from individual sweat pores can be measured.

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“We were concerned if you touched a spliff, or shook hands with someone who had, it would leave a residue on the hands,” Dr Paul Yates, business development manager at University of East Anglia (UEA) spinoff firm Intelligent Fingerprinting, told The Register. “By using this system you can correlate the metabolites directly to the sweat pores on the fingerprint and avoid false positives.

The testing mechanism is sensitive enough to pick up substances with a molecular weight of between 100 and 600, and initially the team is focusing on illegal drug detection. Looking forward, however, it would be possible to use the scanner for detecting hormonal markers, opening up a variety of medical uses from detecting pregnancy to early-onset cancer.

The device was originally developed at UEA and was first tested on students – but not for illegal drugs. Professor David Russell from UEA’s chemistry department, and Intelligent Fingerprinting’s CTO, used the machine to detect cotinine, the metabolite of nicotine, on fingerprints, and then matched them to smokers.

Sadly for students, the laws of the land don’t allow researchers to feed them opiates or cocaine, so the testing for illegal drugs was carried out in association with Kings College’s drug rehabilitation unit. Sweat samples from drug users were taken for testing and cross-matched against urine samples.

So far the device is still in the prototype stage, but with a million or so in funding, Dr. Yates said that the scanner could move into production very quickly. If the device takes off, it will make travelling in certain locales quite risky, since some countries – notably Dubai – have such strict anti-drug laws that even having drugs in your bloodstream counts as importation. ®

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