Media Releases

Fast, portable device for ‘on-the-go,’ laboratory-quality cocaine testing

June 25, 2014

TORONTO, ON - Test­ing for cocaine and oth­er drugs usu­al­ly involves two steps: a quick on-site pre­screen and then a more accu­rate con­fir­ma­to­ry test at a lab­o­ra­to­ry. This process can often take days or weeks — far too long in many cas­es where pub­lic safe­ty can be at risk. Now, a team of researchers report devel­op­ment of a back­pack-sized device that can per­form high­ly accu­rate and sen­si­tive tests any­where with­in 15 min­utes. The study appears in the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal Society’s jour­nal Ana­lyt­i­cal Chem­istry.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to chemist Aaron Wheel­er and col­leagues explain that the cur­rent two-stage sys­tem of test­ing urine for com­mon­ly abused drugs is expen­sive and time-con­sum­ing. The sam­ples also could get lost or com­pro­mised while in trans­port. The ide­al solu­tion, they say, is to skip the pre­screen­ing step and instead bring the lab to the site — but in an easy-to-use, portable pack­age.

“We are mov­ing into a world in which chem­i­cal analy­sis will be every­where — the ‘lab’ will be wher­ev­er you are,” said Wheel­er. “Some analy­ses will be imple­ment­ed using sim­ple a dip­stick for­mat like in a preg­nan­cy test, while oth­ers will require a ‘portable lab­o­ra­to­ry.’”

Cur­rent­ly, when urine sam­ples arrive at labs for con­fir­ma­tion test­ing, trained tech­ni­cians use a “gold-stan­dard” method, rely­ing on sam­ple pro­cess­ing, liq­uid chro­matog­ra­phy and mass spec­trom­e­try to ana­lyze them. Small ver­sions of instru­ments that imple­ment these tech­niques can pro­vide results at or near lab-qual­i­ty, but they haven’t been opti­mized and test­ed togeth­er as a sin­gle, portable instru­ment. Wheeler’s team set out to do just that.

The team put togeth­er a com­pact sys­tem that can do all the steps — extract­ing com­mon­ly abused drugs from urine with a microflu­idic device cou­pled to a small mass spec­trom­e­ter that can iden­ti­fy the sub­stances. The new back­pack-sized instru­ment could ana­lyze cocaine, ben­zoylec­go­nine — the main metabo­lite of cocaine used in drug screen­ing tests — and codeine in four sam­ples in less than 15 min­utes.

“The amount of cocaine we can detect is com­pat­i­ble with lim­its set by the Unit­ed Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,” said Wheel­er. “We expect that our device could be used for many dif­fer­ent kinds of tests in which lab­o­ra­to­ry-qual­i­ty results are need­ed quick­ly and wher­ev­er you hap­pen to be.”

The project is a joint ini­tia­tive of the Wheel­er Microflu­dics Lab­o­ra­to­ry at U of T and R. Gra­ham Cooks, the Hen­ry B. Hass Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Ana­lyt­i­cal Chem­istry at Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty. Oth­er mem­bers of the research team include Andrea E. Kir­by, Nel­son M. Lafrenière and Bren­don Seale of the Wheel­er Lab and Paul I. Hen­dricks of Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty. Research was fund­ed by the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Coun­cil of Cana­da (NSERC) and the U.S. Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion.

With files from the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal Soci­ety.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Andrea Kir­by, PhD
Wheel­er Microflu­idics Lab­o­ra­to­ry
Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-7114

Nel­son Lafrenière
Senior PhD Stu­dent
Wheel­er Microflu­idics Lab­o­ra­to­ry
Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-7114

Chris­tine Elias
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-5499