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SRI-TOFMS: Rapid Analysis of New Psychoactive Substances Blends

Identification of active ingredients in seconds without sample preparation

Following up our recent research on explosives, chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial compounds and illicit drugs detection, we are currently focusing on the analysis of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) utilizing state-of-the-art IONICON PTR-TOF 8000 instruments equipped with SRI capability. NPS, or “designer drugs”, “legal highs” and “research chemicals”, as they are often called, are chemicals with psychoactive effects either similar to illicit drugs or genuine on their own. However, the relevant legislation varies from country to country and NPS are in fact readily available over the Internet.

A popular NPS blend marketed as “synthacaine” on the internet.

In 2014 we have already published astonishing NPS results in renowned peer-reviewed journals[1][2]. We could not only detect ten of the most popular NPS via direct headspace sampling, but also could clearly separate and identify two isomeric compounds by switching the reagent ions between H3O+ and NO+, a process that takes less than 10 s with IONICON instruments. Now we have tried something even more challenging and identified the active ingredients of a popular NPS blend marketed as “synthacaine”[3].

“One of the reactions to the NPS prohibition policy of most countries is, that internet vendors start selling NPS not using the proper chemical terms but lurid made-up words like “synthacaine”, which obviously should suggest to the user that it has similarities to cocaine. In contrast to properly labeled drugs, here it is even more problematic for consumers and paramedics to apply harm-reduction and first aid procedures, respectively. With the IONICON SRI-TOFMS technology we were able to identify the active ingredients of a synthacaine batch at a very high confidence level within less than 30 s.”, says Dr. Philipp Sulzer, Head of IONICON’s Applied Science Team.

“Synthacaine” SRI-TOF analysis: a mixture of methiopropamine and benzocaine.

The analytical procedure was as simple as effective: We analyzed the headspace above a synthacaine sample at two E/N ratios and with two reagent ions [4], respectively, and compared the product ion ratios with a NPS database. The result was a nearly perfect match for methiopropamine and benzocaine. Methiopropamine has been on the NPS market for quite some time now, is an analogue of methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) and thus possesses strong stimulant properties. Benzocaine on the other hand has no psychoactive effect, but is a local anesthetic that gives the user a sensation of numbness in the nose after insufflation, as it would be expected from real cocaine. Philipp Sulzer concludes:

“The NPS market is changing extremely fast because of changing legislation. This is a serious problem for NPS users as they are now even more frequently exposed to new unexplored, untested and dangerous chemicals. However, with IONICON’s PTR-MS instruments we can easily keep up as far as the analysis is concerned. The method is extremely fast, very selective and really simple to use.”

More information:

[1] M. Lanza et. al., J. Mass Spectrom, 48 (9) (2013), 1015-1018

[2] W.J. Acton et. al., Int. J. Mass Spectrom 360 (2014), 28-38

[3] M. Lanza, et al., J. Mass Spectrom.50 (2015) 427.

[4] Varying E/N (reduced electric field strength, i.e. the ratio of the electric field, E, to the buffer gas number density, N in the reaction drift tube), by simply changing the voltage applied across the drift tube, modifies the collisional energy between reagent ions and the neutral analytes. Fragmentation of the protonated molecular ions can be supported or suppressed by changing E/N and when the relative product ion yields are plotted against the applied E/N, characteristic “fingerprints” can result. Combining these E/N fingerprints with changing the ion-molecule chemistry by switching reagent ions (SRI-MS) provides information which enables the rapid identification of analyte molecules with a high level of confidence.