Thermo Fisher Technology used in Innovative Drug Testing

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When it comes to drugs of abuse analysis, urine samples are considered to be the gold standard. However, issues surrounding sample swapping, spiking and privacy concerns during collection mean that relying on urine specimens can often be problematic. Additionally, other sample types used for testing, such as blood, have the disadvantage of requiring trained personnel to take the sample, in addition to it being far more intrusive for the donor.

One of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s goals is to make drugs of abuse testing more accurate and convenient for our customers. To do this, we’re collaborating with Olof Beck, Adjunct Professor and Laboratory Director of the Pharmacology Laboratory at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, to develop more accessible and less invasive methods for drug testing. Beck is leading research into the use of exhaled breath for specimen sampling, and he’s using Thermo Scientific mass spectrometers to analyze the results.

In a webinar hosted by Thermo Fisher and The Analytical Scientist in December, Beck explained that a wide range of drugs of abuse, including cannabinoids, amphetamines and opioids, can be detected in exhaled breath. “Exhaled breath consists of sub-micrometer sized aerosol particles that are formed from the lung airway lining fluid,” said Beck. “These particles contain proteins, lipids and small molecules representative of this fluid. Using a low-cost collection device containing a filter, these aerosol particles can be collected by blowing into the apparatus.”

The sampling method is so simple it can be performed without the need for healthcare specialists. After the exhaled breath sample is collected, the device is sent to the forensic toxicology laboratory, where the collected biological material can be solubilized by passing methanol through the filter, in preparation for analysis.

In a recent pilot study, published in 2015, Beck and colleagues used this sampling technique to monitor the pharmacokinetics of the opioid tramadol.

“Our research method allows detection of trace levels of tramadol up to two days after the drug was administered,” Beck said. “This is comparable to analysis using blood plasma, and demonstrates the potential of the technique as an alternative collection method for roadside and workplace drug testing.”

Our Thermo Scientific TraceFinder software helped automate measurement acquisition and speed up processing of the mass spectrometry data. “TraceFinder software is a very convenient way to guide the users and calibrate the analysis. We were able to set up customized reports for each sample which simplified interpretation of results,” Beck explained.

In other studies, Beck’s team used exhaled breath to study other psychoactive substances such as cocaine and amphetamines. In general, results from breath analysis were in good agreement with sampling using blood plasma and urine.

Beyond forensic drugs of abuse testing, this sampling technique could have applications in other fields. For example, it may have the potential to more easily support the development of disease biomarkers and the monitoring of therapeutics that target diseased lungs.