Stemming the Flow of the ‘Spice’ Drug

The ‘spice’ drug, which has dangerous side effects, is becoming more popular around the world, partly due to the difficulty in detecting its presence.

Spice is the street name for one type of synthetic cannabinoids (SC), which a heterogeneous group of compounds developed to probe the endogenous cannabinoid system or as potential therapeutics. Clandestine laboratories subsequently used published data to develop SC variations marketed as abusable ‘designer drugs’. In the early 2000’s, SC became popular as ‘legal highs’, partly due to their ability to escape detection by standard cannabinoid screening tests. While they provide a similar ‘high’ to cannabis, they are seen as safer but in fact they have serious and potentially fatal side effects.

In 2019, the team developed a prototype of their spice-detecting device and found it could detect the drug from saliva and street material in under five minutes. The current test involves lab analysis of urine, with results after three to seven days.

Dr Chris Pudney from the University’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and creator of the new technology, said faster testing is essential if users are to receive treatment and harm-reduction interventions.

“There is no way of knowing if spice has been taken if someone presents with psychosis or intoxication symptoms that could also be due to other reasons,” said Dr Pudney. “So we see the detection technology as a way to inform care in case of overdose.”

The test’s obvious advantages have resulted in great interest, resulting in a grant which the Bath research team will use to create a simple field-usable testing solution.

Dr Pudney said: “Spice is endemic in homeless communities and prisons. It’s highly potent, 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.”

There are also recent reports of children ‘mistaking’ spice for cannabis, resulting in numerous hospital admissions.

“Drug testing and checking, which is increasing in many countries around the world and in the UK, has been shown to have an impact on drug-taking behaviour and to potentially reduce risk,” said Dr Jenny Scott from the University’s Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology and who is also involved in the research.

“Spice use is a particular issue in homeless communities. In the future, we hope our technology can be used to offer drug testing to spice users and to tailor harm-reduction information to these vulnerable people. The machines could be used in drugs services, homeless hostels and further down the line, in pharmacies.”

The new spice-testing technology will be based on a cloud-hosted data analytics platform.

“We hope to combine this technology with a deeper understanding of the communities that use spice so that we can deploy the spice-detecting technology in the most effective way possible to benefit the most vulnerable in society,” said Dr Pudney. “Our ultimate aim is to save both money and lives.”

By the end of the grant period, the group aims to start a not-for-profit social enterprise to bring their technology to the mainstream. The group plans to roll out the full range of activities needed to deliver the technology, including portable device design, analytical software development, chemical fingerprint libraries and the associated community pharmacy practice advice to deploy the technology effectively.

“We believe the scope and potential of our research is truly unique and presents the best chance for tackling spice use in the UK and more widely,” said Dr Chris Pudney.

Source: News-Medical.Net

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