Researchers at UI develop new test for drug detection

By Erin Lindsay

A new form of drug testing involving the use of a dipstick may soon be prevalent in hospitals across the country.

Researchers at the University have developed the test as a simple method for detecting cocaine and adenosine through the main body fluids: saliva, urine and blood serum.

The test comes in user-friendly kits, similar to a home pregnancy test. Yi Lu, a professor of chemistry at the University and a researcher for the test, said the project aims to attract consumers with its straightforwardness.

“We wanted to create a test that was widely applicable,” Lu said. “We wanted to make it so simple because usually there is room for false positives, and we didn’t want that.”

Chemically speaking, research for the project was aided by earlier work with sensors made of lead. The research continued by using colorimetric sensors (which detect information about colors), that are based on aptamer-like structures.

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Aptamers are single-stranded, nucleic acids that can bind to specific molecules in three-dimensions. For each molecular target, such as cocaine, a corresponding aptamer can be selected from a large DNA library, according to a press release.

The work was funded by the U. S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Lu said that while the test has proved successful in testing for both cocaine and adenosine (a nucleotide consisting of adenine and ribose), he hopes to see the test readily available for a larger arena of substances.

“We are definitely interested in other clinical drugs as well as environmental markers, like pollutants from the environment.”

In the mean time, Lu said the research will hopefully be available for hospitals and law enforcement agencies sometime soon. The timeliness of the test will allow such agents to perform it as quickly as possible while still remaining thorough.

“It’s really hard to tell when it will be able to move to hospitals because we are still in a limited lab in terms of research,” Lu said. “We are currently looking at licensing possibilities to make it happen.”

Natasha Vragel, senior in nursing, said that while the test sounds interesting, cocaine does not stay in one’s system long enough for almost any detection.

“Most cocaine is excreted in the urine within 24 hours of ingestion,” Vragel said. “No matter how quick and easy this test may be, it may not be quick enough.”

Juewen Liu, a post-doctoral researcher who is working under Lu, said that working alongside the professor was very rewarding.

“He’s very hands-off,” Liu said. “He gives you ideas but let’s you explore. He gives you the freedom with how to pursue a problem.”

While there is currently no time frame for when the dipstick will come onto the market, Liu and Lu agree they are very pleased that they fulfilled their goal of making an easy-to-use product that is scientifically significant.

“Our goal is to make it easy for everyone,” Liu said. “Most people with very little scientific background will be able to use it.”