March 28, 2014 9:06 am
Updated: March 28, 2014 10:35 am

Scientists develop sensor that detects ‘date rape drug’ within seconds

When the sensor, GHB Orange, is added to a drink that has been spiked with GHB, the sensor’s fluorescent colour loses its intensity

NUS Faculty of Science/Handout
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TORONTO – A team of researchers say they have developed a new instant test that can detect Gamma-Hydroxybutyric (GHB), a notorious drug used in spiking beverages.

The team of chemists from Singapore say when the fluorescent dye is mixed with a sample beverage containing GHB, the mixture changes colour in less than 30 seconds, making detection of the drug fast and easy.

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“We wanted to develop something that would give results within several seconds, so you can check whether it is a safe drink or whether you should stop and think again,” said National University of Singapore chemistry professor Chang Young-Tae, who supervised the team that discovered the sensor. “As GHB is odourless, colourless and slightly salty, it is almost undetectable when mixed in a drink, thus making it desirable to sexual predators.”

Fluorescent dyes have been widely used as sensors for analytical purposes because of their high sensitivity, fast response time and technical simplicity.

The team shortlisted 17 fluorescent compounds and tested them with a wide range of different GHB concentrations.

Through this, the team identified that an orange fluorescent compound, coined GHB Orange, changes colour when it is mixed with GHB. In order to examine the efficiency of GHB Orange, the team tested its detection capability by mixing a small amount of it with samples of various beverages, ranging from alcoholic, non-alcoholic, coloured and colourless drinks, which contained the GHB drug.

For drinks that are translucent or of a light colour, such as water or vodka, the change in colour can be easily detected with the naked eye. The change in the colour of darker drinks, such as Cola and whiskey, requires the aid of additional lighting to better detect the change.

A small amount of between two to four grams of GHB will interfere with the motor and speech control of a person, and may even induce coma-like sleep. The drug takes effect within 15 to 30 minutes, and the effect can last for three to six hours.

It is only detectable in a person’s urine six to 12 hours after ingestion.

The findings were published in the Chemical Communications journal earlier this year.

Researchers say the next step is to develop a test kit that is “convenient for users to use and carry around.” One of the product scenarios includes that of using a cellphone as a reader since some phones come with a flashlight function that can be used to irradiate the sensor.

© 2014 Shaw Media

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