11.01.2019 change 11.01.2019
Ludwika Tomala
Ludwika Tomala

Polish legal high detection system uses hair to test who is "clean"

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

Traces of 500 psychoactive substances, including 300 legal highs, can be detected in a biological samples with a system designed by Polish researchers. For analysis, the system needs a sample of blood, urine or hair. The test is expected to cost a few hundred zlotys.

A car hits a road sign near a pedestrian crossing at high speed. The driver stumbles out of the car, behaves as if under the influence of intoxicants, mumbles and tries to pump blown car tires. But the tests ordered by the police do not show the presence of alcohol or drugs in the driver`s blood. But what if the person has taken legal highs or psychotropic drugs? How to prove it?

Until now, identification of such non-standard psychoactive substances in the suspect`s organism was a problem - there are many legal highs and the market is changing fast. Researchers from the private Institute of Forensic Genetics in Bydgoszcz propose a solution to this problem. They are finishing work on a new method of testing biological samples - blood, urine or hair - for the presence of traces of psychotropic compounds.

The company wants to launch commercial testing in January 2019.

"We have managed to develop a method of detection of approx. 500 compounds in biological samples - drugs, poisons, medicines and up to 300 legal highs" - says Dr. Jakub Czarny from the Institute of Forensic Genetics. He estimates that it is about approx. 80 percent of currently known psychoactive compounds. He notes that the test will detect both classical drugs, all benzodiazepines available on the market, all tricyclic antidepressants, new generation anti-epileptic drugs and, for example, GHB (a date rape drug). He says that the test will be updated on a regular basis with new substances that appear on the market.

"In other countries, the problem is heroin and opiate drug addiction. The U.S. is struggling with opioid addiction, and in Poland amphetamine and legal high addiction is more common. We used to have several dozen poisonings a year, and now we have the same number, but per month" - he says.

He adds that traces of psychoactive compounds remain in the blood for up to several dozen hours, in the urine - up to several days, in hair - up to 3 months.

The expert explains that blood tests can be used by law enforcement to test drivers during random checks or in case of suspected D.U.I. Concerned parents will probably be more interested in testing the child`s urine. And, for example, employers or people interested in longer history of psychoactive substance use may use hair sample tests.

"3 cm of hair would correspond to about 3 months of history of taking psychoactive compounds" - describes Dr. Czarny.

The researcher hopes that some employers may also want to use the institute`s tests - especially in the case of professions where it is forbidden to perform work under the influence of substances. "The Germanwings pilot, who crashed the plane in 2015 and caused the death of all passengers, was treated for depression. If he underwent routine testing for psychoactive substances, his history of taking antidepressants would have been revealed to the employer earlier" - says the expert.

He adds: "Introduction of mandatory screening of prisoners seems like an obvious choice". He points out that it is already a standard in some countries. "There have been cases of smuggling paper laced with synthetic cannabinoids to detention centres, which the prisoners used for drug abuse. That is why now prisoners do not get originals but photocopies of letters or literature" - reminds Dr. Czarny.

The researcher explains that until now only tests for the presence of several classic drugs have been available. And after all, the market of legal highs has been developed also to beat such tests. He notes that in the U.S. there are also first tests for the presence of legal highs in the blood, but those tests costs about 750 dollars, which is a prohibitive price for Polish customers. In addition, that test currently covers approx. 50 substances, and that is a small part of legal highs. "We want a test for 500 compounds in hair to cost 790 PLN. Testing drivers would cost 450 PLN, and urine test 300 PLN" - he announces.

The samples collected, for example, in an outpatient clinic will be sent to the Institute of Forensic Genetics, where the spectrometric analysis of the sample will be carried out. "This study is too complicated to be carried out with a pharmacy test. The differences between some legal highs are too small" - emphasises the researcher.

He explains that the test analyses the mass of selected molecules contained in the blood. The scientist compares the psychoactive substance molecule to a structure made of bricks with some characteristic features. Under the influence of external factors, these molecules break down into smaller parts according to non-random rules. "We have built a database. It contains breakdown identification patterns for each of the target substances. During the test, in the matrix - which is blood, urine or hair - we search for products of psychoactive substance breakdown" - he explains.

Experts also came up with an idea on how to prepare samples for testing. Earlier methods were based on the assumption that samples of substances as different as amphetamine and opiates must be prepared for testing in different ways. And that complicated the process. "We have developed a universal method for all these compounds" - assures the scientist.

The 500 substances detected in the current analysis are not the end. The institute plans to supplement its databases with more substances. "We are able to react to the emergence of new compounds in a few weeks" - the researcher says.

How does the institute keep up to date with new legal highs appearing on the market? "We carry out tests commissioned by the authorities. The prosecutor`s office and the police are sending us secured materials, and we draw up opinions and identify substances" - explains Czarny. Thanks to these data, the institute can also analyse the chemical properties of new substances.

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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