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Forensic Magazine, November 27, 2023: MS Methods for Identifying Illicit Drugs

Researchers are constantly trying to get ahead of designer drugs and their ever-changing formulas. Mass spectroscopy is a vital component of that, as it can determine the weight and shape of the molecules in a drug sample and its overall composition. Even if there is no reference standard available for a specific sample, mass spectroscopy analysis can at least point forensic scientists in the right direction.

Recently, scientists in the UK and Australia have been working on leveraging the technology in their own ways to aid drug analysis.

High-res MS

In a new study, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and BC Provincial Toxicology Centre (BCPTC) showed how high-resolution mass spectrometry can be used to analyze urine samples at scale and uncover molecules from emerging designer drugs that have been missed by conventional testing. The goal of the study, published in Analytical Chemistry, was to find a better way to prioritize acquisition of reference standards.

To do this, the researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry to re-analyze more than 12,000 urine samples collected in B.C. from 2019 to 2022. The retrospective analysis surfaced new synthetic opioids, benzodiazepines and stimulants that had eluded identification during initial screening.

One of them, fluorofentanyl, is a modified version of fentanyl that was absent from samples before mid-2022 and then spiked during the final few months of the study. This suggests it was introduced to the local drug supply quite suddenly. A few other drugs also had distinct peaks during the 2-year study period. more

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