Police Trial On-The-Spot DNA Testing Machines

Mark White, Home Affairs Correspondent

British police have begun trialling on-the-spot DNA testing, which could help trace serious criminals within hours, rather than days.

The Home Office has given extra funding to police in Lancashire and Nottinghamshire to begin operating the machines.

The machines are about the size of a small photocopier and can be transported to a crime scene and used in the early stages of an investigation.

The machine's developers, Key Forensic Services, claim the Rapid DNA technology will allow investigators to input samples from a crime scene into the machine themselves.

Any match to samples on the national DNA database will be found in less than two hours.

Currently, police have to send DNA samples off to forensic laboratories and any match can take several days.

Key Forensic Services' Chief Executive Paul Hackett told Sky News: "It essentially duplicates what we currently do in three or four laboratories using a large number of people and a lot of instrumentation. 

"So the results are directly comparable with the current lab-based process, they're simply faster - just two hours."

As well as analysing any traces of DNA found at a crime scene, the machine will also allow investigators to take swabs from potential suspects.

These swabs can then be quickly compared with the DNA evidence recovered.

Senior police officers hope the technology will give detectives the means to identify a suspect much more quickly.

They hope it will prevent them from going on the run, or committing other offences before they are identified.

West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Simms, the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on forensic science, said: "The hope is that eventually this will become the dominant technology, that it's affordable, that it's reliable and we are in the position that at every single crime scene we're able to get DNA within a couple of hours. 

"I think that will then begin to revolutionise the way we investigate crime."

Developers say the portable analyser is the biggest advance in DNA profiling since the technique was introduced by the British geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1984.

Police first used Sir Alec's new technique in 1988 to help secure the conviction of Colin Pitchfork who raped and murdered two schoolgirls in Leicestershire.

Over the years DNA evidence has helped prosecute thousands.

It allowed detectives to connect the serial killer Steve Wright to the five women he targeted in Suffolk in 2006.

Vincent Tabak was matched to traces of DNA found at the scene of the murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates in Bristol in December 2010.

But technological advances can only go so far and detectives will still have to do the leg work, according to renowned criminologist Professor David Wilson.

"Of course it's a breakthrough because of the speed, but at the end of the day even if you gather DNA results, you have to have a suspect, with which you can compare that result, so you have got to have someone who you've arrested with a view to charging," he said.

The Home Office has awarded £431,000 to help develop the faster DNA detection technique in Lancashire and Nottinghamshire. 

If successful, the technology will be rolled out to other forces.