Simple test for detecting synthetic cannabinoid use developed

A simple saliva test to detect if someone has recently taken a synthetic cannabinoid, otherwise known as ‘spice’, has been developed at the University of Bath.

The multi-disciplinary research team who developed the five-minute test hope it can be used by health professionals to better treat people suffering from adverse effects of the synthetic drug.

Despite the serious and increasing public health problem that spice poses in Britain and other countries around the world, there is currently no point-of-care test to tell if someone has recently taken it.

This is especially problematic for health professionals as many patients they believe have used synthetic cannabinoids are unconscious, incoherent or experiencing psychosis. Without being able to test for the substance, a precautionary approach is often followed which might not be the optimal course of treatment. In addition, people undergoing temporary psychosis due to spice might be unnecessarily admitted to a psychiatric ward, putting pressure on scarce NHS resources.

The saliva test developed at Bath takes about five minutes, can be done on the spot and will identify whether a synthetic cannabinoid has recently been smoked, what group of the diverse variants available it came from and an indication of concentration.

According to the researchers, ‘spice’ isn’t a single substance but can be one or a mixture of more than 100 subtly different man-made chemicals. That makes testing for spice particularly difficult and why this approach is such a step forward.

Dr Chris Pudney from the University of Bath came up with the idea. He said: “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. 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.”

The research team now wants to further develop the prototype to optimise it for use in clinical settings. They hope to be able to trial it with medical professionals within a year.

Dr Pudney added: “We’ve proved the concept with a test that’s simple and very accurate. The hardware is compact and portable and the results are easy to understand. We’re working on software now, so that the user has a simple ‘one click’ way to use it.”

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