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NMR Tech Revolutionising Drug Analysis

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Professor Daniel Holland and his team from the University of Canterbury’s Chemical and Process Engineering Department are enhancing a method known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). They aim to use this technique to measure illicit drug content and concentration more efficiently and precisely.

According to Professor Holland, most drug harm arises from individuals consuming substances with unknown concentrations. He believes that the novel NMR analysis approach will enable rapid, accurate, and easily accessible drug testing, thereby addressing this issue effectively.

Professor Holland states that such measurements would aid law enforcement and healthcare organisations in monitoring the availability of substances on the streets and determining their precise concentrations. It would contribute to minimising the harm caused by individuals consuming these substances.

“These measurements would assist policing and health agencies to track which substances are available on the street, and determine their exact concentrations, helping to reduce the harm caused by people taking them,” he explained.

The nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technique, renowned in analytical chemistry, is currently limited to university settings due to its high expenses and intricate nature. However, Professor Holland and his team aim to overcome these barriers by harnessing compact, benchtop NMR systems that have yet to be commonly employed. Through the integration of machine learning, they seek to attain comparable accuracy and precision to that of full-size systems.

Furthermore, their groundbreaking work extends this analytical approach to novel and emerging substances, thereby pioneering the world’s first fully automated quantitative analysis of NMR data.

According to Professor Holland, the illicit drugs market operates without regulations, with approximately 50 new illicit substances reported annually. These substances are commonly marketed as ‘synthetic’ or ‘designer’ drugs on the street. There is a significant challenge in accurately identifying these new drugs and determining the precise quantity of the active substance they contain.

However, by introducing their innovative NMR technique, Professor Holland and his team aim to streamline and enhance this process. The new technique promises faster and more accurate identification of illicit drugs while maintaining affordability and accessibility.

According to Professor Holland, there have been recent cases in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where individuals were sold a substance purported to be MDMA (Ecstasy), but it was later discovered to be eutylone, a synthetic drug commonly known as “bath salts.” Eutylone can lead to harmful side effects and even overdose.

Professor Holland highlights that Aotearoa, New Zealand, has been at the forefront of legalising drug-checking services, making it an ideal location for developing this new testing technology. The 2021 Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act aims to establish a safer environment for individuals to have their drugs tested, ensuring their well-being.

Professor Holland has collaborated closely with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) in developing the new testing approach. He envisions its potential application in law enforcement, drug testing centres, and forensic testing laboratories.

While he acknowledges that on-site drug testing using benchtop NMR is unlikely at festivals, he believes it could be implemented effectively at drug-checking centres unless there is a mobile lab-type setup. These centres enable individuals to verify the authenticity and safety of illicit drugs before attending festivals or parties.

In addition to the technical aspects, Professor Holland’s research project encompasses a social science and health component. He plans to collaborate with social scientists at the University of Canterbury to explore the underlying reasons for drug use, identify strategies to minimise harm and investigate the existing barriers to drug-checking initiatives.

The team’s ongoing research and development efforts have the potential to extend beyond drug testing applications. The techniques being developed by the team could be adapted for various other analytical chemistry purposes, including food quality control, chemical and polymer manufacturing, and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Professor Holland envisions a significant commercial market for analysis in these sectors, estimating its value to reach around USD$2 billion. The versatility and accuracy of the developed methods open up possibilities for broader applications beyond illicit drug testing, paving the way for advancements in multiple industries where precise analytical measurements are crucial.


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