A portable device that will be able to detect the street drug known as ‘spice’ is to be developed for use in clinical settings, prisons and by police services thanks to a new £1.3 million research grant.

Despite the serious and increasing public health risk that spice poses in the UK, there is currently no point-of-care test to tell if someone has recently taken it. At present, testing involves urine samples being sent to a laboratory for analysis, with results being available after three to seven days.

But the new device, which is being developed in partnership with the Manchester Drug Analysis and Knowledge Exchange (MANDRAKE) at Manchester Metropolitan University, aims to change this by offering on the spot results in the field.

It is anticipated the device will help public health agencies to tackle spice and to help people may have taken the drug.

A prototype of the device was developed in 2019 by researchers from the University of Bath, who are leading the project, which was able to detect the drug from street material and in saliva in less than five minutes.

The success of these trials attracted interest from police forces, drug testing facilities, homeless charities, prisons and private enterprises, leading to the new grant.

Researchers from MANDRAKE have since joined the team and will be responsible for providing up-to-date intelligence, through the testing of seized samples and by supplying reference standards of the most common synthetic cannabinoids found on the illicit market.

These standards will be used to optimise the range and sensitivity of the spice detector before the system can be trialled within the field.

MANDRAKE will also be responsible for trialling the device on the streets of Greater Manchester, alongside Greater Manchester Police and other frontline responders.

Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in Psychopharmaceutical Chemistry at Manchester Met and Director of MANDRAKE, said:

“We have seen first-hand the devastating effects of synthetic cannabinoids or ‘spice’ on the homeless community in Greater Manchester and due to the rapidly evolving synthetic cannabinoid market, many frontline health professionals are unsure how to effectively respond to emergencies.

“Our team is extremely proud to be part of the development of this rapid field-deployable system, which offers a game-changing solution to tackling the serious drug-related harms affecting vulnerable sections of our society.”

Dr Chris Pudney, from Bath’s Department of Biology and Biochemistry, said: “Spice is endemic in homeless communities and prisons. It’s highly potent and addictive, and poses severe health risks to users including psychosis, stroke, epileptic seizures and can kill.

“We want to deliver a detection system both to raise the prospect of rapid treatment and to stem the flow of drugs in these communities.”


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