Den Bosch toxicologist advances the forensic profiling of hair, a treasure trove of information about a person’s personal habits

A little biological evidence can go a long way for Dr. Theo Noij, Principal Research Scientist at Charles River’s Den Bosch facility and a lecturer at Avans University of Applied Science in Breda, The Netherlands. His research group at Avans recently won a grant from the Dutch Task Force for Applied Research (SIA) for €250,000, which will go toward their research on hair analysis.

“This hair analysis project has a forensic background,” said Noij. “At a crime scene various biological traces are left behind; blood, sperm, skin flakes, hair, nails, etc.”

Unlike what you may have seen on one of the hundred or so crime shows on television, a reliable DNA test cannot always be performed on the biological material found at a crime scene. There may not be enough material to test, or it may be degraded somehow. Even if the DNA comes through cleanly, if a suspect is not already in custody the DNA is not terribly helpful unless it is already in a DNA library.

Luckily, biologists say that almost anything that enters your bloodstream will eventually come out in your hair. Noij says that the average person grows about one centimeter of hair per month, so 10 centimeters of hair can tell forensic scientists some of what you have been up to in the past 10 months.

“Hair contains tiny traces of the use of medicine, drugs of abuse, food habits, smoking and alcohol use,” Dr. Ben de Rooij, the project leader at Avans, said. “By analyzing hair on a set of typical constituents, we aim to make a profile of the owner of the hair (suspect, victim, or witness). This profile will help the crime investigators to chase the right criminal.”

Traces of food, drugs, or other substances in the hair can help create a profile of the person that it came from, which can help police track them down if they are at large. These traces can also rule out suspects who have already been arrested, if the traits revealed through hair analysis do not match the person sitting in jail.

SIA’s grant will mainly be used to hire a post-doc researcher to run the university’s sophisticated mass spectrometry equipment. Avans and its research partners will also match the grant through in-kind contributions, for a total of half a million euros dedicated to this research.

“This [grant] is meant to stimulate collaboration between universities and public parties,” Noij said. “The hair project will help law enforcement to obtain a detailed profile of people who were at the crime scene.”

De Rooij says they will collaborate with the Netherlands’ Forensic Institute (NFI), who will also be the end user for the practical application of this research. Other research partners include Maastricht University’s MultiModal Molecular Imaging institute, the University of Leuven in Belgium, and regional police and forensic physicians.

The research conducted with the grant funding will prove invaluable to crime scene investigators. Although many of the forensic techniques you see on crime shows are exaggerated science fiction, Noij’s work could bring them closer to realistic science fact.