New test can detect use of 'zombie drug' spice in 5 minutes
Scientists have developed a prototype for a simple test that detects whether a person has recently taken the street drug.
Scientists say they have developed the first simple saliva test to detect if a person has recently taken the psychoactive drug spice.
The test, which takes about 5 minutes, can be performed on the spot and identifies whether synthetic cannabinoids have been smoked and if so, at what concentration.
The prototype test is featured in the journal Analytical Chemistry. It is hoped that it can be used by healthcare professionals to better treat those who have taken spice, who may be unconscious, incoherent or experiencing psychosis.
Scientists say the current method of testing for such substances is a urine or blood sample that is sent to a laboratory, with results taking days to come through.
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Spice is not a single substance and can be one or a mixture of more than 100 subtly different man-made chemicals, making testing for it difficult.
This means a precautionary approach is often followed for such patients, which may not be the optimal course of treatment, scientists say.
Those undergoing temporary psychosis due to spice may also be admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Dr Chris Pudney, at the University of Bath, described results as “simple and very accurate” and easy to understand.
“My partner is a psychiatrist and she was telling me that currently they don’t have a way to confirm when they suspect spice use, they just don’t know for sure,” Dr Pudney said.
“You can test for it with a urine or blood sample that is sent off to a lab, but that takes a few days and so in most cases it’s pointless.
“I started looking into the chemistry and it’s actually similar to something we have developed for detection of biological molecules.
“We decided on saliva because it seemed tractable and less invasive than some other options.”
Dr Pudney contacted colleagues at the university’s Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, Department of Computer Science, to explore developing the device.
The university hosted a session with representatives from the NHS, drug charities and homeless charities.
To conduct the test, a saliva sample is taken from the patient and put into a small clear tube.
This tube is placed into the machine, which then uses light to scan for the “fingerprint” of a spice compound. Within 5 minutes, the result comes up on a screen linked to the device.
The zombie drug: what is spice?The substance known as ‘spice’ is usually a mixture of dried and shredded plant material, sprayed with various synthetic chemicals meant to mimic the main component of cannabis, THC. These chemicals, when smoked, act on a key part of the central nervous system that regulates mood, pain-sensation, appetite and memory.
Videos of spice users often show them in trance-like states, staggering around or convulsing – hence why newspapers have called it the ‘zombie drug’. It can also be highly addictive and cause breathing difficulties, panic attacks and psychotic episodes.
Dr Jenny Scott, of the Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, said: “Spice can be used to ‘zombify’ people, escaping them from the reality in which they find themselves, making them highly vulnerable.
“Two thirds of prison governors report concern about new psychoactive substances use in their prisons, including spice. Use of spice and other synthetic cannabinoids is estimated at about 10 per cent amongst prisoners, and has placed a strain on emergency healthcare.
“Our collaborative research work with homeless people who use drugs has found spice is commonly taken by them also.
“Detection and confirmation of spice use early on when someone is found incoherent gives a chance to start timely treatment for their symptoms.
“Further down the line, we can foresee the kit being used as part of a care pathway that avoids the need to hospitalise some patients if appropriate healthcare can be given where they are.”
It is hoped that medical professionals will be able to trial the device within a year.
More information and support for those affected by substance abuse problems can be found at bit.ly/drug_support
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.