Hold your breath — drug testing just got more advanced

Researchers develop first fully validated method of detecting drugs of abuse in exhaled breath

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When you hear the term “drug testing,” you would be forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind is urine sample. This is especially true when the media is full of stories about athletes failing drug tests, plans to drug test welfare recipients, and even the selling of fake urine to pass drug tests.

Urine samples are the gold standard (excuse the color reference) when it comes to drug testing, based on a long and comprehensive experience. However, it is not without its fair share of problems. These include spiking, swapping or even privacy concerns when it comes to sample collection supervision.

Professor Olof Beck, Karolinska institutet (Photo: Ulf Sirborn)Other specimens in drug testing include blood, hair, sweat and even oral fluid (saliva). Blood has the obvious disadvantage of requiring trained personnel to take the sample, not to mention that it is far more intrusive for the donor. 

Drug testing on oral fluid (saliva) is well documented and has even become an integral part of new drug drive legislation that came into force this week in the UK.

Every breath you ... exhale 

Now imagine taking this one step further and having your exhaled breath analysed for drugs? Ever since their unexpected discovery of Amphetamines in exhaled breath several years ago, scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have continued to push the barriers in this method of drug testing.

Professor Olof Beck and his team have developed the first fully validated and robust screening method for the routine measurement of drugs of abuse in exhaled breath, with a simple procedure for specimen collection sample preparation. This was followed by a highly sensitive analytical technique known as LC-MS (Liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry). The drugs of abuse identified include amphetamines, methamphetamines, cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

They report on this development in Elsevier’s Journal of Chromatography B.

Sample of a chromatogram obtained from the analysis of patient sample containing benzoylecgonine and cocaine.Dr. Beck, from Karolinska’s Department of Laboratory Medicine, explained how this is possible:

The underlying mechanism in exhaled breath drug testing is believed to be the formation of aerosol particles from the airway lining fluid by the breathing process. These aerosol particles may become contaminated with drugs present in the body, which enables drug testing using this specimen. A simple collection device is currently available which selectively collects the micrometer aerosol particles on a filter and enables further laboratory investigation of possible drug content.

When asked if he could foresee this method of drug testing being used routinely, for example, in roadside tests relating to DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs), Professor Beck said:

Yes, I see many possible applications of breath drug testing. DUID is only one; workplace, criminal justice, accidents and compliance monitoring of patients are others. For DUID, the short detection time is relevant since the state of influence is in focus, and this combined with the convenient sampling procedure makes it an attractive solution for roadside testing.

Journal of Chromatography BRead the full article

Elsevier has made this article freely available until December 31, 2015.

Niclas Stephanson, et al: “Method validation and application of a liquid chromatography – tandem mass spectrometry method for drugs of abuse testing in exhaled breath,” Journal of Chromatography B (March 2015)


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Daaren SugrueWith a background in biotechnology and genetics, Darren Sugrue worked in various laboratories throughout the world before he hung up his lab coat in 2006 for a career in marketing. In 2010, he joined Elsevier as Marketing Communications Manager, where he works primarily on the Chemistry portfolio of journals.

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