New testing methods to identify designer drugs
Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed new testing methods that can quickly and accurately identify the latest designer drugs, along with better tests for traditional drugs.
New psychoactive substances (NPS) are illicit lab-made chemical compounds that aim to produce effects similar to common drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, LSD and heroin. These drugs can be much stronger and deadlier than their traditional counterparts and often are mixed with other drugs. This means that users don’t know what they are taking, which can lead to an increased risk of death from overdose.
“Usually, substance identification needs a reference standard, so we know the chemical structure,” said UTS Professor of Forensic Toxicology Shanlin Fu. “However, for newly emerging NPS there’s no reference standard and no spectroscopic library database. Until we developed these tests, they often slipped through the law enforcement net.”
Researchers from the UTS Centre for Forensic Science have patented three new NPS rapid tests: one for cathinones, which are stimulants also known as ‘bath salts’; one for NBOMes, which are powerful hallucinogens similar to LSD; and a test for fentanyl analogues, which are synthetic opioids. They have also developed a test for piperazine derivatives and have a new version of the Scott test, which is the current rapid test for cocaine, in the pipeline. Future plans include the development of an easy-to-use, all-in-one NPS rapid test.
UTS forensic scientist Dr Morgan Alonzo worked with German company ESA-Test to develop the first test for synthetic cathinones, with support from the Global Connections Fund, as part of her PhD. The test works by changing colour when it detects a particular class of drug, and has been commercialised by ESA-Test.
“Synthetic cathinones are a large class of new psychoactive substances with a structure very similar to amphetamines — just one oxygen atom different — but that makes all the difference in terms of detection,” Alonzo said.
“Our test was able to give a quick indication, within a minute or two, that you had a cathinone present in a sample. Because the test was quite successful, we then went on to look at what other synthetic drugs we could detect using colour tests.”
The team is also working on better high‑resolution mass spectrometric analyses of new psychoactive substances, to improve detection and identification. This method of analysis can be used to screen for NPS in drug seizures, and in other sources such as wastewater, to identify usage trends in the community.
These new tests will give law enforcement agencies and customs services another tool in their fight against illicit drug importation, while also saving lives by helping doctors and paramedics identify those drugs that are causing harm and warn users.
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