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Drug Testing May Be As Simple As Breathing


Drug testing for narcotics using urine and blood samples may become a thing of the past and be as simple as breathing, or exhaling, to be more precise. A new drug testing technique developed by researchers from Karolinska Institutet collects narcotic substances from exhaled breath, which could make urine collection and invasive blood sampling unnecessary someday.

Currently, drug testing is mostly accomplished using blood and urine samples, although saliva, hair, and even sweat can be used. Now, researchers have found a way to detect traces of illicit drugs in a person’s breath. Since alcohol use can be checked using a breathalyzer, and it is already possible to measure other substances in exhaled breath in people who have diabetes and asthma, the researchers are confident they will be able to develop the necessary instrument and methods to test for a broad spectrum of drugs.

The investigative team, led by Professor Olof Beck, discovered that all individuals who sought emergency care for amphetamine overdose during a specific time period had traces of the drug in their exhaled breath. Twelve patients who had toxic symptoms after ingesting amphetamines participated in the study. Breath samples were taken after the effects of the drug had dissipated.

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All breath samples from the patients revealed the presence of amphetamine and metamphetamine (which is similar to amphetamine). The amount of drugs detected ranged between 0.2 and 130 pg/min, which was low compared to the blood and urine samples also taken. Breath samples taken from healthy controls did not reveal any signs of the drugs.

To collect the samples, the investigators asked the patients to breathe into a specially designed mask for ten minutes. The exhaled air was passed through a filter, which captured the drug substances, and the filters were analyzed using combined liquid chromatography and tandem mass-spectrometry.

Currently, the urine test is the most common form of drug testing for traces of drugs. A positive result indicates that a drug was used in the recent past and not if the person was under the influence when giving the sample. A blood test measures the actual amount of drugs in the blood at the time of the test. Saliva tests are reliable, but saliva contains drugs mostly in their unmetabolized forms and at much lower concentrations, which means sensitive assays are required. Hair testing is capable of detecting drug use for months, and the hair can come from any part of the body.

Professor Beck noted that the results of their study “are convincing and very promising.” For the new drug testing technique to become a reality, Beck said that “an instrument like a breathalyser for drugs would be the optimal solution for the efficient control of drug use by motorists, for example.” A natural extension of such a breath drug testing method would be by healthcare and social services, workplaces, schools, and the legal system.

Beck O et al. Journal of Analytical Toxicology 2010 Jun; 34(5): 233-37
National Institute on Drug Abuse