Education

Is this stuff cocaine? These college kids can tell you real fast

Florida International University biochemistry Ph.D. students Haixiang Yu, Juan Canoura, and Obtin Alkhamis have worked together to patent a series of new tests that they say can quickly, accurately and cost-effectively confirm the presence of cocaine.
Florida International University biochemistry Ph.D. students Haixiang Yu, Juan Canoura, and Obtin Alkhamis have worked together to patent a series of new tests that they say can quickly, accurately and cost-effectively confirm the presence of cocaine.

FIU students and their professor say they have patented a series of new tests that can quickly, accurately and cost-effectively confirm the presence of cocaine.

The technology is painstakingly precise.

“We’re trying to detect a grain of cocaine dissolved in a swimming pool,” biochemistry Ph.D. student Haixiang Yu said in a news release. “But it is even more complicated because saliva has proteins and salts that are different from person to person.”

The tests the university developed can be carried out by police on the side of the road during DUI stops. One of the tests analyzes the saliva, the other looks for other unknown powders.

In both cases, the substance to be tested is added to a liquid solution developed by FIU chemist Yi Xiao and her students in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education. If the substance includes cocaine, the sample glows under a blue light in seconds.

Traditional methods for confirming whether a person has used cocaine are more expensive, complicated, and time consuming, Yu said.

Typically, law enforcement officers first have to obtain blood or urine samples, which are then tested in a lab. Results usually take weeks and may yield false positives and false negatives.

Using FIU’s tests, the researchers say accurate results can be obtained within a fraction of the time and at an affordable cost since the tests are completed in a one-step process. The tests also don’t require the use of expensive equipment or lab-based services.

According to a March 2017 State Department report, Colombia, the major provider of cocaine to the United States, has seen a 42 percent increase in illegal coca crop cultivation from 2014 to 2015. The report also said there are “troubling early signs” that cocaine use and its availability is on the rise in the U.S. for the first time in nearly a decade.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there was an increase in cocaine seizures nationwide between 2014 and 2015, and the number of overdose deaths within the United States involving cocaine in 2015 was the highest since 2007, the report said.

The FIU researchers hope to license and commercialize their cocaine detecting tests. Xiao, Yu, chemistry Ph.D. student Juan Canoura, and recent chemistry graduate Obtin Alkhamis published a study on these methods in the journal Analytical Chemistry in January.

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