New machine able to identify trace amounts of illicit drugs

A new drug testing machine used to identify potentially deadly drugs was evaluated in a brief trial at an overdose prevention site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside earlier in August. The machine uses a technique called paper spray mass spectrometry and can evaluate the presence of trace amounts of illicit drugs, as well as contaminants in measured samples.

Chris Gill, the analytical chemist at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo developing this new technology, told CBC News that this machine has greater sensitivity compared to other drug testing machines.

“The drug would have to be three to five per cent of a component to see it in a machine [that’s currently in use]. We can detect 0.0003 per cent,” said Gill. The researcher also said that the machine can identify trace amounts of deadly, potent drugs: “Although all drugs are dangerous, knowing that there’s a toxic substance that could kill you in the drug can change behaviour.” For instance, the machine can identify minuscule amounts of the drug carfentanil, a synthetic opioid approximately 100 times more potent than its analogue fentanyl, which has been responsible for numerous overdose-related deaths in Canada in recent years.

However, Gill also mentioned that using a tiny sample of a drug for testing creates a challenge, since not all components of the drug are distributed evenly when a filler is present, and testing only a tiny portion of the drug can lead to a result that does not correctly represent the constitution of the entire sample.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any solution [to this problem], other than dissolving the entire sample, which is not an effective way to convince someone to do a test,” he said. Despite this issue, Gill noted that testing using this novel technology provides informative results and has the potential to motivate drug users to contact health services.

“We’ve demonstrated the technology works, I need funding to accelerate the development of smaller … systems that can be more available in the harm reduction community, both here and around the world. A million dollars would go a long way.” 

Chris Gill, analytical chemist, Vancouver Island University

Gill and his colleagues are currently working on making the machine smaller and more affordable, they aim for the price to be between $60,000 to $100,000 per unit. The researcher also told CBC he is applying for funding from the National Research Council of Canada and Health Canada.

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