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New device to change how recreational drugs are tested

The NZ$ 40 billion antibodies industry may be disrupted by the arrival of a faster, cheaper and humane way of testing for substances developed by a Wellington-based start-up.

It all comes down to aptamers, short strands of DNA which can mimic the action of antibodies traditionally used for testing.

According to a recent report, the bio-sensing product is about to be fielded for trial.

The handheld device can be used anywhere such as the roadside, in workplaces, or in hospital triages to test for recreational drugs.

A saliva sample can identify if a person has taken any of six different recreational drugs in just three minutes.

Moreover, the device can detect the levels of drugs in the saliva and not just its presence, unlike the traditional roadside testing units.

The device offers technology and applications beyond merely detecting recreational drugs.

Doctors may test the saliva of the patients for issues and get instant results without going through the stress of using needles.

The company is currently working on solutions utilising the same technology for fertility and environmental pollutant testing.

Aptamers are like a tiny antibody. They are short strands of synthetic DNA. But unlike antibodies, they do not need to be extracted from an animal and can be produced quickly and cheaply in a laboratory.

Antibodies can take 12 to 18 months to develop in the laboratory.

But it takes less than a month for the start-up to get to an equivalent point. This is going to revolutionise the way medical professionals diagnose and monitor the health of their patients.

Once an aptamer is engineered it can be reproduced many times over, without the batch-to-batch variation which can occur with antibody production.

This ease of production has the potential to slash the cost of diagnostic tests.

Moreover, aptamers target smaller molecules than antibodies normally can, and have a greater sensitivity to the molecule, giving more accurate results.

An analogy of spaghetti and meatballs is used to describe how aptamers are attracted to proteins.

Each aptamer is like a strand of spaghetti programmed to wrap around certain type of meatball. When the combination is right, the strand of spaghetti wraps around the meatball.

The solution implemented by the start-up puts the aptamers on an electrode surface, and when the “meatballs” touched them, the level of electron movement is recorded by a portable testing device.

The information is then displayed on an app.

When the company began, their focus was on creating a tool to test buildings for methamphetamine contamination.

The team decided to take what they had developed and expand on it to focus on roadside drug testing for a range of drugs.

At present the device can test for methamphetamine, opiates, cocaine, MDMA, cannabinoids and benzodiazepines.

The current roadside saliva tests for drugs take five minutes to produce results. The company’s device is able to cut the time down to three minutes and is capable of testing for a variety of substances.

It can also report on the levels of the substance found, instead of just its presence.

Due to the speed aptamers can be developed, the ability to keep up with changing formulations of drugs is also present.

The company is working on an aptamer for synthetic cannabis.

For synthetic cannabis, it can be changed every three months, or six months for a new version of the drug.

The good thing about this is that the same device is kept and the only thing being changed is the strip with aptamers for whichever it is being targeted.

The prototype device is due to be trialled by the New Zealand Police in March 2019. It will be used either through roadside or in holding cells.

The design of the testing device is being refined after feedback on its robustness in the field and ability to withstand rough handling.

The drug testing device is expected to be ready for market December 2019.

The start-up responsible for this is AuramerBio. It is a biotech company spun out of the MacDiarmid Institute.

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