Fingered by a single cell

October 10, 1997

RESEARCH on genetic defects in test tube babies has led to a discovery that could revolutionise forensic science and put an end to the perfect, undetectable crime, all before the end of the century.

Pathologist Ian Findlay of Leeds University is the first scientist in the world to obtain a genetic fingerprint from a single human cell in a breakthrough that he believes will put Britain at the forefront of crime detection.

"Everyone sheds cells so once this technique is in use there will be no escape for criminals," he said.

Forensic scientists will be able to obtain DNA profiles from invisible skin cells shed on to the floor or left on weapons, vehicles, pens, even a cigarette. A smudged fingerprint at the scene of a crime, once a frustrating enigma, will in future be invaluable to detectives. And a licked stamp will contain more than enough genetic material to identify a kidnapper. In cases of multiple rape, a single sperm could be isolated for analysis.

Not only is the new technique more sensitive than existing methods but it is also considerably more accurate. So far results are 100 per cent correct, although Mr Findlay stresses that more tests are required.

"This is not just another step - you can't go any further than one cell. This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for," he said.

The Birmingham Forensic Science Service, which has collaborated with the research, is said to be very excited about the results. The technique could be perfected within a couple of years.

Using the new technique the chances of cell samples from two people producing an identical result are 100 million to one. And single cells do not carry the same risk of contamination from other sources as multiple cell samples, according to Mr Findlay.

However, the big question mark over the research is whether Mr Findlay will be able to continue his work once funding from the Medical Research Council runs out next year.

"There is a very real concern that if we don't get new funding, this work will just stop or go to the United States," he said. "So often the UK leads the field at the early stage then it is left for others to apply breakthroughs and we lose all our best people."

The technique, known as fluorescent PCR amplification, was developed by Mr Findlay at St James's Hospital in Leeds for pre-condition diagnosis in embryos during in vitro fertilisation. Single cells are removed from embryos and tested for cystic fibrosis and Downs Syndrome but other uses for the technique quickly became apparent.

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