Wooden toothpicks allow faster, cheaper drug tests
By applying drops of sample urine or oral fluid to the toothpick, scientists can test for the presence of four of the most common illegal drugs – ketamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine. Photo: SCMP
A new technique using wooden toothpicks to test for illegal drugs has been hailed as simpler, faster and more cost effective by Polytechnic University scientists who pioneered the breakthrough.
Each test provides a result within two minutes – compared to the several hours for conventional drug testing methods.
It is also far cheaper, at about HK$50 per test, than existing methods which costs up to HK$2,000 to analyse one sample.
By applying drops of sample urine or oral fluid to the toothpick, scientists can test for the presence of four of the most common illegal drugs – ketamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and cocaine.
PolyU said the new technique allows scientists to avoid the need for preliminary screening of samples before they are analysed by a mass spectrometer.
Wooden toothpicks, available from supermarkets at about HK$10 for 600, replace the conventional technique of using capillary action on samples prior to mass spectrometry.
The toothpicks can also reduce interference from other substances and do not risk producing false positive or false negative results which can be problem with conventional test kits.
“In the past, we had to separate other chemical compounds of the urine or oral fluid sample before carrying out analysis,” said Dr Yao Zhongping from PolyU’s Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology.
“Now we can directly analyse the raw samples.”
He added: “Each toothpick can also test two samples as there are two ends.”
The new technology was jointly funded by the Beat Drugs Fund and PolyU.
The Narcotics Division has been approached but no firm plans have been revealed for the government body to put the technique into use.
The research team at PolyU pledged to continue to develop more methods for rapid and reliable drug analysis, and expand the analysis to other commonly used illegal drugs such as cannabis and heroin. In particular, researchers are planning to develop a portable device for on-site drug analysis within the next three years.
Drugs remain a problem in Hong Kong although the number of people reported by police to be using illegal drugs fell by 12 per cent in the first nine months of last year compared to the same period a year earlier.
However, many of the cases reported to police last year had been using drugs for far longer, compared with cases reported in 2008.
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