The MODeLiC (Organic Materials for Controlled Detection and Release) research team led by Ana María Costero, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Valencia (UV), has developed a system with colorimetric sensors that change colour when there is γ-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) in a beverage. GHB is a colourless, odourless compound with a slightly salty taste that when ingested overrides the will of the person. The research patented by the UV provides as a novelty the safety in the detection of this substance in alcoholic beverages and soft drinks.
GHB is a simple and relatively easily available molecule. Its effects last from three to six hours and the body metabolises it quickly, so it is very difficult to prove its intake afterwards. It is used as a recreational drug due to its euphoric effects, but it is addictive and produces loss of consciousness of reality, so the person who ingests it is defenseless against dangers such as robbery or rape. The illegal use of these types of substances is a growing social problem. The Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine (SEMES) estimates that these substances are involved in approximately 20% of sexual assaults.
The kit will consist of a small plastic envelope with several droppers and containers with the solution, to be used especially by women in circumstances where they could be inadvertently drugged. Given the characteristics of GHB, contaminating a beverage in a leisure setting is easy, but being aware of contamination is difficult. With the proposed method, checking for possible contamination is simple, “it is better to throw out a drink than risk being taken advantage of in any way”, highlights professor Ana Costero.
According to professor Costero, who is also the director of the Interuniversity Institute for Molecular Recognition and Technological Development (IDM), “the main objective of the project is to make available to people a simple, reliable and disposable system with which to detect any attempt to use GHB for criminal purposes”. On the other hand, Pablo Gaviña, the researcher in charge of the project, comments: “We want to make a kit with which women can check, when they go to leisure centres, if there is something abnormal in their drink. The person takes a drop of the drink, adds it to the solution and if it changes colour, the drink contains GHB. It is a personal protection system”.
Traditionally, systems to detect these substances have been tested with spirits and distillates, and their detection is easy, although they have not been tested with alcoholic and soft drinks. “When you mix spirits with non-alcoholic beverages, for example a tonic, the detection problems increase, as those beverages contain products that can give false positives or false negatives. With the sensor developed by the UV scientific team, the composition of the drinks does not change the response, so it is a safer method”, explains Silvia Rodríguez Nuévalos, a predoctoral researcher at the UV who has worked on the development of the project.
The research team states that there is currently no device that can be used in situ to reliably and easily detect whether a beverage has been contaminated with a submission substance such as GHB. There are bibliographic references for the subsequent detection of other submission drugs such as scopolamine or ketamine, but there are no prevention systems for personal use.
Another important part of the job is related to social aspects. To know the degree of acceptance of the kit and verify its effectiveness, they will have a group of young female students. The ScienceFlows research team, led by Carolina Moreno, Professor of Journalism, will guarantee that the experience of distributing kits and collecting data and subsequently disseminating results can be carried out.
The scientific part is funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities (project Smart Materials for the detection of drugs of abuse and biomarkers RTI2018-100910-B-C42) with €120,000 in funding and a validity of three years).