A research team composed of groups from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), the Spanish Centre for Biomedical Research in Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine (CIBER-BBN), the University of Southern Denmark, Odense, and the Institute of Polymer Chemistry (ICP)-Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) has developed a new sensor that can detect the presence of ecstasy simply, reliably, fast, selectively and economically.
The system of nanoparticles generated by the research team gives an immediate visual response: if a pill contains ecstasy, when it is diluted in water the liquid's fluorescence instantly rises and reveals the presence of the drug.
The work has been described in a paper published in the Chemical Communications Journal.
Psychostimulant that can cause paranoia and heart failure
Ecstasy is one of the most widely consumed drugs at the present time and can cause memory problems, paranoia, insomnia, high blood pressure and even heart failure, among other disorders.
Up to now, its detection and quantification have been obtained by techniques such as Capillary electrophoresis, spectroscopy and chromatography, methods which, according to Beatriz Lozano, researcher at the Interuniversity Research Institute for Molecular Recognition and Technological Development (IDM) are "perfectly viable, but they require the use of special equipment that is both expensive and has to be applied by skilled operators. On the other hand, our system stands out for its ease-of-use, low cost and reliability".
A molecular gate formed by a combination of the blue box and naphthol retains the dye
The method created by the Spanish, Danish and Austrian research team consists of a hybrid material that includes an inorganic support with a dye (Fluorescein) and is functionalised with an organic molecule derived from naphthol.
The colorant is retained when the blue box (a molecule widely used in Chemistry) coordinates with the naphthol and forms a molecular gate. If the sample analysed contains ecstasy its fluorescence is modified in proportion to the concentration of the drug detected.
Researcher Beatriz Lozano explains "blue box was already known to have an affinity with different neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and since this neurotransmitter is structurally similar to ecstasy, we thought it would be a good idea to try to make the molecular gate open in the presence of the drug and thus liberate the dye, which gives the fluorogenic response".
According to the tests carried out in the laboratory, among its other qualities, this new system is unique for its high sensitivity, up to 0.95 micrograms / millilitre.
The next stage and new lines of research
The researchers' next step will be to embed the hybrid material in an aluminium plate, "to make en situ detection even faster", says Lozano.
The UPV's IDM research team is currently working on a new sensor that will be able to detect other synthetic drugs.