Familiar science, innovative harm reduction: Researchers develop spice detection device

by Isabella Ross

A world-first device that is able to detect spice in saliva or street material in under five minutes has been developed by a team of researchers at the University of Bath. Initially developed in 2019 and now granted £1.3 million in funding by the university to expand the prototype, the device is expected to be rolled out for use within three years.

Volteface spoke to Dr Chris Pudney, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath and creator of the innovative technology. 

The concept for the device was developed in a conversation between Dr Pudney and his partner, a psychiatrist, who lamented the lack of robust technology to support a diagnosis of patients under the influence of spice. Pudney looked at the structure of the molecules in spice and found that they were reminiscent of familiar proteins he had previously worked with. He called it a “lightbulb moment”. 

The device hopes to improve the currently limited ability for effective detection of spice, which at present requires urine samples to be sent to a laboratory for analysis, with results taking up to seven days. The “completely simple, completely robust” device that can detect spice in under five minutes is a complementary addition to the already powerful drug checking services available for personal use via Reagent tests, and in the wake of the deaths of three Newcastle men after taking spice (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-56995403) in early May, the need for the accessible and wide distribution of the device is pronounced. 

While this development is revolutionary in its unprecedented harm reduction potential, Pudney doesn’t see the rigorous scientific research and technology as “the hard part”, stating that “you could always detect things better, more sensitively, more quickly”. He instead identifies the key barriers in the creation of such devices as twofold: the challenge of surveying and interacting with communities of people who use drugs constructively to understand their harm reduction needs, and the effective distribution of the technologies through existing services “to make the biggest difference”. 

The University of Bath and their team of researchers have made great efforts to mitigate the effects of these barriers, working with partners including the Avon and Somerset Police, Greater Manchester Police, MANDRAKE drug testing and information facility, the Bristol Drugs Project, Hull Prison, and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction among others.

Maggie Telfer, CEO of partner organisation Bristol Drugs Project, said of the technology:

“BDP is excited to be working with the University of Bath developing technology capable of  analysing synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists – more widely known to us all as ‘Spice’.  With 100’s of possible compounds in different generations of Spice, the effects can vary very widely e.g. some samples stimulating impulsive behaviours while others lead to an almost catatonic state. Being able to know what the likely impact of taking Spice might be will support BDP and other organisations to have conversations with people about the effects they are likely to experience and to tailor our harm reduction advice to reduce risk.”

The development of this device is clearly a fantastic addition to the toolkit of drug treatment and support organisations, and it is evident from Dr Chris Pudney’s words that further technological and scientific developments in harm reduction are possible, and indeed imminent. 

Issy Ross is a content officer at Volteface. Tweets @isabellakross

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