A simple fingerprint is all that’s needed to detect cocaine use, according to new research by a group of scientists from the University of Surrey Ion Beam Center and the Biomedical Research Center at Sheffield Hallam University. nuviun dug further, investigating what further implications this new tech may have for healthcare.
The researchers published a study this month proving the effectiveness of a new, non-invasive rapid drug test using mass spectrometry. The test requires only a fingerprint.
Cocaine is a stimulant that, when ingested, affects an individual’s psychomotor and cardiovascular functioning. The “high” can last for a few minutes or a few hours, but the risks of cocaine use are substantial.
A patient presenting in an emergency room with acute cocaine toxicity may be agitated, experience convulsions, tachycardia, high blood pressure, and chest pain. In 2010, nearly one-quarter of patients between the ages of 18 and 30 presenting with chest pains at two London hospitals tested positive for cocaine use.
Every Second Counts
Unfortunately, few patients taking illegal drugs are either able or willing to disclose their drug use in a time of crisis, when every second counts. When a patient presents with chest pain, beta-blockers are sometimes given in an effort to prevent a heart attack. But the coronary artery spasms caused by cocaine can become dangerous when beta-blockers are given.
Other symptoms of cocaine toxicity can further complicate treatment in an emergency department. Dr. Stephen Meldon, an emergency medicine specialist from Cleveland Clinic, told nuviun he found the prospect of “non-invasive drug tests really intriguing.” He said:
In the ED [emergency department] we generally do point of care urine drug tests, which do give us rapid results. What sometimes holds us up, especially if the patient is very agitated or experiencing excited delirium, is that getting the specimen can be tricky.
Rapid, non-invasive drug testing on the horizon
This is the first time cocaine testing has been performed on fingerprints with high specificity—the test looks for cocaine metabolites that are only present if you actually consume the drug. With no biohazards and minimal preparation required, this new approach has obvious applications in the field of law enforcement. However, nuviun wondered if there might be applications in healthcare as well.
In a chain of cross-continental e-mail communications, nuviun asked Dr. Simona Francese, a co-author of the study and biomedical researcher and reader at Sheffield Hallam's Biomedical Research Centre if she saw healthcare applications for this rapid drug testing.
What benefits do you see to conducting this kind of drug test in an emergency-department setting when blood/urine testing would be feasible? Is it faster? Safer? More accurate?
With both the mass spectrometric methods used, it is much faster (at the most, 1 minute sample prep, 5 seconds for analysis), highly accurate (the technology employed is high end and cutting edge and, as such, is highly reliable and accurate) and impossible to fake as the identity of the donor is linked biometrically.
In healthcare I can see two applications:
- Patience compliance, also linked to patient prognosis as we could follow the molecular markers of the patient under therapy and making/not making progress
- Non-invasive screening of diseases.
Will you study the technique's ability to recognize other common street drugs?
Yes, and we will continue to expand on the range of detectable drug/metabolite species in a forensic context.
Is the freezing/drying of fingerprints necessary for analysis?
With Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization (MALDI) we have analyzed some real crime scene marks (we have a collaboration with the Home Office UK and West Yorkshire Police UK) that have been exposed to unknown and changing environmental conditions for a number of days and also preliminary treated with a powder that the CSI use to visualize the mark.
We can still see cocaine and its metabolites. So the answer is no need for freezing. However, if we are doing drug testing for patience compliance (we are already collaborating with a global pharmaceutical company) and the analysis is not done immediately, it is just safer to freeze the mark because the degradation of the drug is very species dependent. With regards to drying, the mark does need to be dry for MALDI analysis.
Can you take fingerprints off any surface for this purpose?
With MALDI we can! We have developed and patented a method (dry wet method, Patent no. GB2489215 ) by which we can lift fingermarks from a large variety of surfaces to then analyze using MALDI. The only surfaces for which tape lifting does not work are paper and tape but they can be submitted directly to the mass spectrometer.
Is there a cost benefit to this sort of testing in a healthcare setting?
It would reduce the sample collection and analysis time greatly (as well as being a non-invasive test).
Your paper indicates the size of the mass spectrometer might be prohibitive—how far out do you think we are from building a more portable machine?
There are a few American groups looking at miniaturizing this type of mass spectrometer, but I would be surprised if this happens earlier than 10 years. However, the problem with any portable instrument is that, with respect to their benchmark peers, they are generally less robust and sensitive, and therefore they would be used as a quick screening only. We do not truly need a portable MALDI and, if the analysis is done in hospitals or healthcare centers, it makes sense to have a MALDI mass spectrometer in situ.
If you can find drug metabolites in fingerprints (this is just me, a writer, not a scientist), I’m wondering if other things could be detected in fingerprints too (i.e., viruses or antibodies)?
We have a track record with MALDI detecting fatty acids, aminoacids, peptides and proteins. Viruses would be too large to be directly detected although antibodies could be detected using a strategy called proteomics.
By detecting proteins we can say with the 85% accuracy whether or not the print belongs to a man or a woman and, from a biomedical perspective, these markers are very significant, as some of them have been shown to indicate the presence of prostate and breast cancer. We are working, therefore, toward a non-invasive test to detect diseases from a mark or a fingertip smear.
Nearly 1 in 10 adults in the UK have used cocaine
With 9.4 percent of 16 to 59-year-olds in the UK reporting that they’ve used cocaine in their lifetimes, according to a government report published in March 2015, this fingerprint testing method could prove useful in both law enforcement and healthcare applications.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.