The Battle to Detect Novel Psychoactive Substances

Apr 11 2016 Read 2726 Times

In the world of psychoactive drugs, as quick as the lawmakers bring in new laws to prohibit a substance, the drug makers find a way around them. To stay on the right side of the law whilst still furnishing the supply for a demanding market and turning a profit, drug designers continuously tweak the chemical composition of their products.

By constantly changing the makeup of drugs to avoid making illegal substances, drug designers can theoretically evade transgression indefinitely. The established techniques of analysing and quantifying the makeup of drugs — such as gas chromatography or high performance liquid chromatography — can be costly, time-consuming and don’t always have the relevant back catalogue to identify a substance once it has been isolated.

A Breakthrough from Belfast

This is where a new study from researchers at Queen’s University Belfast comes into play. Pioneered by Steven Bell, the technique involves combining two types of spectroscopy to analyse samples suspected of containing novel psychoactive substances (NPSs).

Bell and his team use infrared spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy to analyse a sample and a database to check if it is recognised and matched against an existing substance. If a sample wasn’t found in the database, they used mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to extend the existing database so samples could be matched in future using the technique.

‘The approach determines if a seized sample is a known new psychoactive substance – and therefore whether it is an illegal substance – or a new variant, which we therefore need to add to our database and which will also need to be researched as to the physiological impact of ingestion,’ Bell told Chemistry World. ‘Adopting this process to live field analysis will also allow agencies to build a picture of what materials are currently in circulation and act as an early warning system to the relevant authorities.’

The Power of Spectroscopy

The new technique could prove to be invaluable in keeping up with drug designer’s intent on finding ever more complex ways of circumventing the law and producing ‘legal’ highs.

‘The application of rapid and selective screen techniques, such as Raman spectroscopy, offer extremely simple and user-friendly tools for law enforcement agencies engaged in curtailing the spread of these substances,’ said Oliver Sutcliffe, who is co-director of the Centre for the Study of Legal Highs in Manchester.

Chromatography is a useful tool in drug analysis as discussed in the article, Evaluation of Evaporative Sample Preparation Techniques for the Extraction of Drugs of Abuse from Urine Samples by Forensic Science Ireland —  but now drug testers have another potential tool in IR and Raman spectroscopy. When you don’t even know what it is you’re looking for, the technique from Bell and the rest of his Belfast team provides an effective way of isolating new substances and increases the knowledge database needed by the law makers to combat new legal highs.

Image from pixabay


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