Forensic scientists have found a way to recover human DNA from the surface of pills and capsules – a breakthrough that they hope will help law enforcement agencies nail down criminals and expose illegal drug syndicates.
In a pilot study that is set to be published in the September issue of Forensic Science International: Genetics, researchers from Australia’s Flinders University show that it is possible to retrieve the DNA of individuals who have handled capsules for as little as 15 seconds during the production, assembly and distribution of illegal drugs such as MDMA and ecstasy.
It is the first time scientists have been able to obtain DNA profiles from the surface of drug capsules.
Amy Griffin, lead researcher on the study, told VICE World News that “An example of how this might work in practice is if the police seized some capsules containing illicit drugs such as ecstasy, the surface of each capsule may be swabbed for DNA. That DNA will get amplified and a DNA profile can be produced.”
This profile can then be compared to the profile of a suspect, or entered into a relevant database. If there’s a match, then authorities have a lead. If there isn’t, the DNA can be archived as a new profile to help identify other persons of interest.
“If an unidentifiable DNA profile is obtained, it may still be useful for intelligence-led policing as a ‘biological profile’ to potentially link or exclude various drug seizures as originating from the same source,” Professor Adrian Linacre, Chair of Forensic DNA Technology at Flinders University, said in a statement provided to VICE World News. In other words: the DNA samples can be compared to those found on other pills and capsules to examine whether different drug seizures might have come from the same source.
Researchers concluded that their study demonstrates the potential for forensic science laboratories to recover trace DNA from the outside of MDMA and ecstasy caps, “thus enabling both biological and chemical profiling methods to contribute to the investigation of clandestine drug production and distribution.”
Most importantly, Griffin added, it’s accurate.
“We used the same technologies that are employed in many forensic institutions, so it is as accurate as any trace DNA technology,” she said. “Whenever someone is matched to a DNA profile, a statistical value is calculated to determine how likely it is that the DNA came from them rather than an unknown, unrelated person within the population.”
Griffin further noted that the DNA profiling technology used in the study is available worldwide, opening up the possibility for other countries to adopt the same capsule analysis method while collaborating on international drug busts. And though the technology is only in its infancy, one subject of future research, according to Griffin, is determining how far back along the chain of drug production the DNA samples could lead investigators.
“There are many factors that could influence how far up the production line we are able to go.”
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