Pioneering fingerprint technology verified in court

Dr Simona Francese from the Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre has been speaking about a ground-breaking fingerprint profiling method, developed at Hallam, which can provide an in-depth analysis of fingerprints at crime scenes. The technology has been on trial with West Yorkshire Police which saw it successfully implemented during an investigation into a case of harassment. The technology can test for traces of drugs, blood, hair and other molecules to provide a bigger picture of the criminal and assist the case. The Home Office has invested funding in the project and researchers hope to see the technology be used in high-profile cases.

A ground-breaking fingerprint profiling method designed by Sheffield Hallam University that can provide an in-depth analysis of fingerprints at crime scenes has been proven to be compatible with real-life forensic investigations.

In a new paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Analyst journal, scientists from the University’s Biomolecular Research Centre (BMRC) have demonstrated that their analysis of a fingermark during an investigation into a case of harassment in West Yorkshire, corroborated the defendant’s account.

The researchers discovered traces of a unique molecule that only forms in the body when cocaine and alcohol are consumed at the same time, providing an insight into the criminal’s state of mind at the time of committing the offence. While the cocaine abuse was confirmed by forensic tests, the defendant had denied alcohol consumption and only later admitted it prior to the court hearing.

Using a technology known as Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionisation Mass Spectrometry Imaging and Profiling (MALDI-MSI and MALDI-MSP) the scientists can test for traces of drugs, blood, hair and cleaning products and condom lubricants as well as other substances of forensic interest that will provide crime investigators with crucial background information about a criminal’s activities prior to committing a crime.

Thanks to funding from the Home Office’s Innovation Fund, the research team have been working with West Yorkshire Police to trial the technology. It is the first time a technology of this nature has been applied successfully and compatibly with current fingerprinting techniques, proving its feasibility to be adopted into standard forensic investigation policies.

MALDI-MSI, which is a powerful technology normally used to map different molecules within tissue sections, produces multiple images of fingermarks which are made up of materials from the surface of the skin and from gland secretions.

Conventionally, fingermarks found at the scene of a crime are lifted after using a powder to enhance them, and are then compared with prints on a police database to identify a suspect.

Dr Simona Francese, project lead and reader in Mass Spectrometry, said: “This is an exciting development that demonstrates the efficiency of MALDI-based techniques to be used to provide additional intelligence to the police and forensic investigators.

“This is yet another step closer to our aim of getting this technology integrated into standard forensic procedures at scenes of crime across the country.”

West Yorkshire Police’s Regional Head of Identification Services, Neil Denison said: “This research presents an exciting opportunity to enhance fingerprint capability beyond just identification and will help us to profile the lifestyle of the offender.”

For press information: contact Sarah Duce in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 4025 or email

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