‘Litmus test’ to save drug and slimming pill users

Dominika Pelegrinova, of Edinburgh University's drugs test project, which has been entered for international competitions. Picture: Neil Hanna

Dominika Pelegrinova, of Edinburgh University's drugs test project, which has been entered for international competitions. Picture: Neil Hanna

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A SCRAP of paper could help to reduce drug-related deaths by identifying lethal contaminants and high purity levels in class-A substances, Scottish researchers have claimed.

The team from Edinburgh University hopes to prevent accidental overdoses among users of heroin and MDMA, as well as dangerous diet pills, by developing a cheap paper-based biosensor to flag up dangerous purity levels in drugs.

We wanted it to be cheap and easy to make

Inspired to act by the blight of drug abuse seen on the streets of the capital, the g roup of undergraduates decided to create the device in an attempt to highlight dangerous levels of additives to drug ­users.

The project will test for levels of PMA – often nicknamed “killer” or “death” – a drug similar to MDMA, the chemical in ecstasy.

PMA is much more poisonous than MDMA, which makes it more likely for users to overdose by mistake if they take too large a quantity.

The biosensor would also flag up the chemical DNP in diet pills – a dangerous compound which was the subject of a global alert from Interpol earlier this year after English student Eloise Parry, 21, died after taking eight pills in which it was the active ingredient.

Dominika Pelegrinova, promotions manager for the Class-A-fied project, said: “It’s difficult to keep people from taking drugs, but we wanted to do something to make it safer for them.

“We are trying to make this sort of product as accessible as we can so it can be produced cheaply to reduce the risk for users.”

The nine-person team, made up of biologists, philosophers, computer scientists and chemists, has been working on the project since February. They will submit it for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) next month.

Pelegrinova, 21, a third-year biology student, said: “We will freeze-dry enzymes on to a small piece of paper.

“There will be these microscopic channels where the drug would be placed and a reaction would take place which changes the colour on the paper.

“It would just be a piece of paper with plastic covering parts of it, as we wanted it to be cheap and easy to make so it could be available to everyone.

The project was welcomed by campaigners against drug abuse who have called for innovative thinking to tackle accidental overdoses.

Carmen McShane, service manager at drugs rehabilitation charity Turning Point Scotland, said: “First and foremost, harm reduction saves lives. It can also offer an important first step for anyone hoping to recover from drug addiction.

“The harm reduction model offering safe injecting equipment was a hugely successful response to the public health crisis facing the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s, saving countless lives, following the emergence and rapid spread of HIV infection linked to the epidemic of heroin.

“More recently Scotland has led the way in having the first publicly funded Take Home Naloxone programme, which is helping to reduce deaths by temporarily reversing the effects of an opiate overdose until the emergency services can attend.

“We welcome any new initiative that has the potential to reduce the risk of overdose because every single drug-related death is a personal tragedy to the individual and their loved ones.

“We are really interested to hear about this new project by Edinburgh University and look forward to taking part in the discussion on the issues around it.”

The team will host a public debate with MSPs and campaigners to discuss the ethical issues behind the project on 6 August at Paterson’s Land, Holyrood Road at 6pm.

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