Public Release: 

Improving detection of a 'date rape' drug

American Chemical Society

Because gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), commonly known as a "date rape drug" is rapidly absorbed and metabolized by the body, it's difficult for law enforcement to tell if someone has been given GHB. Now, scientists report in ACS' journal Analytical Chemistry that they have identified a potential biomarker that might lead to tests to detect the compound that could be performed much later than current ones.

When ingested, GHB can make a person groggy or sleepy and can induce amnesia. As a prescription drug, it is used to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, as well as relieve pain, fatigue and other symptoms of fibromyalgia. But it also has been used as a recreational club drug and has been linked to thousands of sexual assault cases. Current techniques can only detect GHB in the first few hours after ingestion. In addition they require considerable modifications to the samples that can skew the results or even destroy the evidence. To address these challenges, researchers from the Centro de Investigacion Principe Felipe of Valencia, King's College London and Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona wanted to see if they could identify a biomarker of the drug that would stay in urine or blood a lot longer than GHB itself does. They also wanted to find a method that would not require extensive sample manipulation.

The researchers studied samples from a clinical trial in which volunteers received small doses of GHB. Blood and urine samples were taken from trial participants at regular intervals over 30 hours following ingestion. The scientists analyzed the samples using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and found that they could detect GHB in urine samples taken up to 2 hours after ingestion. They also could distinguish GHB from other similar drugs. Importantly, the researchers found that glycolate, a metabolite of GHB, might be a good biomarker for the drug. They could measure its levels in urine for up to 20 hours after the drug was taken. This finding could form the basis for tests that could be performed much later than current ones. And, because technique didn't damage or destroy the samples, further analyses with other methods are possible.

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The authors acknowledge the Drug Control Centre at King's College London for kindly providing samples, and funding and support from the MINECO, a Jose Castillejos mobility fellowship from the Spanish government, an Erasmus+ trainee fellowship from the European Union and a King's-China scholarship.

The abstract that accompanies this study is available here.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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