10:08pm Tuesday 12 December 2017

Tests to catch the makers of dangerous 'legal high' designer drugs

The drugs, known by names such as ‘ivory wave’ and NRG-1” and sold labelled as bath salts, plant food and incense, mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as amphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy. Although these so-called ‘designer drugs’ can be dangerous, many have not yet been made illegal and are difficult to detect with current drug tests.

A means of potentially tracing the source of the raw materials, and consequently providing information as to who is making the ‘bath salts,’ is being developed by scientists at Strathclyde and The James Hutton Institute.

The bath salts drug can cause euphoria, paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations. It often contains mephedrone, a synthetic compound structurally related to methcathinone, which is found in Khat – a plant which, like mephedrone itself, is illegal in many countries.

The bath salts drug is labelled as being not for human consumption and is not illegal in the UK but its import has been banned. The term ‘bath salts’ is used by those who sell the drug as a way of circumventing legislation when supplying it.    

The researchers developing tests for the drug are using a technique known as isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) to reveal the course of a drug’s manufacture. 

The research is being carried out by Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, and Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and Dr Katy Savage at the Centre for Forensic Science in the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, in collaboration with Dr Wolfram Meier-Augenstein at The James Hutton Institute.

Left to right: Dr Oliver Sutcliffe; Dr Katy Savage; Professor Niamh nic Daeid

Dr Sutcliffe said: “The legal status of designer drugs varies around the world but they present many dangers to users and these are borne out by the Home Office’s decision to ban the import of ‘bath salts.’

“The new method we have used has enabled us to work backwards and trace the substances back to their starting materials. IRMS measures the relative amounts of an element’s different forms- it is successful because these relative amounts are transferred like a fingerprint through the synthesis of the drug.”

In previous research, the Strathclyde team developed the first pure reference standard for mephedrone, as well as the first reliable liquid chromatography test for the substance, which could be run in a typical law enforcement lab.

The team has also developed a comprehensive screening method for 16 known legal high drug variants using conventional gas chromatographic analysis and are developing a semi- quantitative colourimetric test kit for legal highs which can be used by law enforcement at point of seizure, facilitating a more rapid response to these materials.

The project was presented at the recent 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which was held in Denver.  

Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences is a pioneering centre for developing new medicines for illnesses and conditions including infectious diseases, cancer, heart disease and arthritis. An £8 million fundraising campaign is underway for the Institute’s new £36 million building, to expand and enhance its innovative medical research, education and discovery capabilities to continue providing solutions to major health care problems.

The Centre for Forensic Science, in Strathclyde’s Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, is one of the leading research and teaching centres of its kind in Europe. The Centre undertakes innovative research in many aspects of forensic science and frequently provides advice and guidance in the development of policy and practice in forensic science, both in the UK and overseas.


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