UBC lab testing new portable drug-checking device

Mar 16, 2023

A research lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is currently testing a new, portable drug-checking device that could help to identify smaller concentrations of drug components.

The laboratory, led by Dr. Jason Hein, associate professor in the Chemistry Department, is testing a novel version of high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) instruments to identify drug concentrations below 5%.

“We are hoping to lower the barriers associated with this high-quality analytical technology and translate it into drug-checking,” said graduate student Sara Guzman in her interview with CBC News. “It will increase sensitivity but also effectiveness and reduce human error.”

The technology being tested by the Hein lab was developed by the U.S.-based company Axcend. Furthermore, the Hein lab plans to eventually provide the service for free to drug-checking sites and distributors working with clinics.

Currently, Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy is the main technology used to check drugs. However, according to Guzman, the main limitation of this technology is not being able accurately detect drug concentrations under 5%, which is often the case for opioids.

“Even an extremely small concentration of something like fentanyl can be lethal depending on one’s tolerance,” said Guzman.

Earlier in January, B.C. became the first province in Canada to receive an exemption from Health Canada under subsection 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, decriminalizing the possession of up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA for individuals aged 18 and older within the province.

As a means of harm reduction, drug checking services have been offered by regional health authorities in B.C., as well as by non-profit and community-based organizations in order to reduce the number of overdose-related deaths.

“The goal really is to try and pair technologies because every … strategy has its own limitations,” said Jennifer Matthews, a drug-checking implementation lead at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), in her interview with CBC News. “What we want to do is maximize the benefit of all of those to try and get the most complete picture that we can.”