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ISU Grant Could Improve Police On-Scene Drug Analysis

A mechanical gadget sitting on a desk that is about the size of a desktop printer.  It is a mass spectrometer that can identify illegal drugs at crime scenes.
Photo courtesy of Illinois State University
Mass spectrometer which is about the size of a desktop printer. Researchers are looking to add a second drug-testing device for simultaneous testing of suspected illegal drugs at crime scenes.

Police officers face some scary, illicit drugs when responding to crime scenes, including synthetic painkillers where contact with even the smallest amount can be fatal. That was a concern, in hindsight, after emergency responders found an overdose victim in Bloomington who used heroin mixed with deadly carfentanyl, which can be easily absorbed on contact.

Illinois State University chemistry and business faculty and students are using a $300,000 federal grant to continue research that created a 90-pound device that already can be used cost-effectively to identify many more illegal drugs on site. Chemistry Professor Jeremy Driskell said now they’re working to add a second, backup test to the same portable device known as a Mass Spectrometer.

“If we have two independent identifications then it’s much more accurate in terms of identifying and holding up in a court of law,” Driskell said on GLT's Sound Ideas. Researchers point out field test results on illicit drugs have never been reliable enough to meet a legal challenge.

Two Illinois State University Chemistry faculty members sitting side by site with awards on the wall behind them
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Department of Chemistry faculty members Jeremy Driskell and Yun-Hyun Kim are working on research that can offer reliable, on-site testing for illicit drugs and results that will hold up in court.

The research will focus on adding Raman Spectrometery, which is already available and simple to operate. Driskell believes it could save agencies money and avoid having to wait sometimes weeks for backed-up labs to process results for drug samples.

“The techniques we're developing will ideally have the specificity and the sensitivity that it won’t require transportation back to a reference lab. We can do it all on scene,” Driskell said.

The team, which also includes Christopher Mulligan from the Department of Chemistry and Department of Management and Quantitative Methods faculty member Jamie Wieland, is also working to ensure the instrument can examine bulk evidence as well as trace residues of drugs.

Chemistry Professor Jun-Hyun Kim and his students will add nanoparticles to cellulose-type paper to increase surface area and improve absorption. That will allow for smaller traces of drugs to be tested.

To help understand the concept, Professor Kim used this analogy:

“You can think about packing materials in a small surface, in a jar for example. Packing sand versus rock, you can pack more sand in the same jar.”

The use of nanoparticles also allows stronger signals to be picked up by the Raman Spectrometer. According to Kim, this can lower the number of false positives because the device can differentiate between the smallest molecular changes and more accuracy identify drugs.

Law enforcement authorities say illegal drug labs continually alter synthetic opioids, creating new derivatives to add to the pipeline.

The National Institute of Justice grant does not require the device be tested to produce results within a specified degree of reliability. Driskell points out each of the devices independently has a level of accuracy above 95 percent, and researchers believe running the tests simultaneously could improve that.

This is the third grant from the NIJ supporting research behind augmenting the Mass Spectrometer. Yet another grant will be needed to complete the step of building a database of drugs in all classes and software that police officers can easily use to know what substances the tests have identified.

The research team hopes a two-tiered device will be ready for use at crime scenes in the next five years.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview:

GLT's full story on ISU's research team.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.