Academics in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Surrey in the U.K. have developed a new portable test made for assessing levels of cocaine and benzoylecgonine (the main metabolite of cocaine) in urine or oral fluid samples.

Currently, portable testing for cocaine is conducted using antibody-based kits, which cannot show how much of the substance a person has ingested, and are susceptible to false positives.

By contrast, the new test relies on mass spectrometry, a chemical-based analytical technique which identifies a molecule based on the ratio between its electrical charge and its mass. While this technique is well established in laboratory testing, the progress researchers have made with portable mass spectrometers may make the test a more viable option for roadside testing, as well as on-the-spot testing in prisons or workplaces.

The mass spectrometry method provides more accurate testing for cocaine and benzoylecgonine by utilizing three separate points of identification. First, a saliva sample is collected on a pad and washed into the chromatography column using a special solution. The time the molecules take to pass through the column varies based on the molecule, and the results can be measured to allow for identification. Next, the device measures the mass of the molecule, allowing for a second point of identification. Then, portions of the molecules are smashed and the mass of the fragments are measured, allowing for a third identification point.

Taken together, the three identification techniques provide more accurate results than those provided by antibody-based testing kits. Mass spectrometry is less likely to produce a false positive than the current test, and unlike antibody testing, spectrometry can determine how much of a substance a person has ingested.

However, the mass spectrometry testing device is considerably more expensive than the current test. Each new spectrometry device costs more than… (continue reading)