DNA Can Be Recovered from ‘Touches’ on Drug Capsules: Study

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Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr.

In a revolutionary feat, researchers have demonstrated that DNA can be recovered from the surface of illicit drug capsules after just 15 seconds of human contact by a home manufacturer or dealer, making it easier than ever for law enforcement to track down criminal enterprises, News Medical reports.  

In the new study published by Forensic Science International: Genetics, four Australian Flinders University researchers led by Amy Griffin of the College of Science and Engineering collected DNA samples on the outside of 60 gelatine, vegetable, and enteric vegetable drug capsules. 

The authors described studying these three capsule types because they’re the most commonly used for illicit drugs, such as MDMA, while also enabling both biological and chemical profiling methods that law enforcement would use to obtain DNA, according to the report. 

“By sampling the outside of capsules, individuals who may have handled them during production, assembly or distribution may have deposited their DNA and can be identified if matched to a nominated profile or one on a relevant DNA database,” the authors write in their report. 

To conduct the study, the researchers created a controlled scenario where two individuals would wash their hands thoroughly, and wait for 30 minutes before handling ten of gelatine, vegetable, and enteric vegetable capsules. The participants handled each capsule for no more than 15 seconds. 


Digital art by R.F. via Flickr

Following, each capsule was swabbed and isolated for touch DNA using the VeriFiler Plus DNA profiling kit — one that the researchers detail is widely used in forensic laboratories, according to the study.  

Touch DNA is named for the fact that it analyzes skin cells and oil left behind by the individual, according to Scientific American.

Through their collection efforts, the quantities of DNA recovered from the capsules ranged from 0.006 to 3.700 ng, with an average of 0.267 ng. 

To put this in perspective, the minimum required DNA concentration for 23andMe, a personal genome service screening test, is 15 ng, according to an FDA report. 

But, despite the low quantities of DNA recovered, it was enough to be tested and used to match to the right handler for 49 out of 60 of the capsules — or 82 percent. 

“The ability to generate profiles from 82 percent of capsules highlights how valuable it could be for operational forensic laboratories to sample the exterior of pill capsules,” Griffin told News Medical

And, what further excites the researchers, is that the DNA profiles can be uploaded to criminal databases.

Chair in Forensic DNA Technology at Flinders University, Professor Adrian Linacre, shares the excitement over the results, and how they will highlight the potential to generate DNA profiles to help identify other persons of interest in criminal syndicates, according to News Medical. 

“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 to complement and corroborate the findings of the chemical profile,” Lincare described. 

The study’s authors agree, detailing in their report that if the DNA found doesn’t match a profile in known databases, it will be uploaded for future connections. 

The full report is available for purchase here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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