A new £ 1.3 million research grant aims to develop a wearable device that can detect the street drug known as ‘Spice’. It is to be developed for use in clinical facilities, prisons and police services.

Despite the serious and increasing public health risk that spices pose in the UK, there is currently no point-of-care test to determine if someone has recently taken it. Urine samples are currently sent to a laboratory for analysis, with results being available after three to seven days.

The new device, being developed in partnership with Manchester Drug Analysis and Knowledge Sharing (MANDRAKE) at Manchester Metropolitan University, aims to change that by providing on-site results.

The device is expected to help public health officials fight spices and help people who may have ingested the drug.

A prototype of the device was developed in 2019 by researchers from the University of Bath, who led the project and were able to detect the drug from street material and saliva in less than five minutes.

The success of these attempts drew interest from police forces, drug testing facilities, homeless charities, prisons and private businesses and resulted in the new grant.

MANDRAKE researchers have since joined the team and will be responsible for providing up-to-date information by testing confiscated samples and providing reference standards for the most abundant synthetic cannabinoids on the illicit market.

These standards are used to optimize the range and sensitivity of the spice detector before the system can be tested in the field.

MANDRAKE will be responsible for testing the device on the streets of Greater Manchester in addition to the Greater Manchester Police and other emergency services.

Dr. Oliver Sutcliffe, Lecturer in Psychopharmaceutical Chemistry at Manchester Met and Director of MANDRAKE, said:

“We have seen firsthand the devastating effects of synthetic cannabinoids, or ‘spices’, on the homeless community in Greater Manchester. With the rapidly evolving market for synthetic cannabinoids, many frontline health professionals are unsure of how to effectively respond to emergencies.

“Our team is very proud to be part of the development of this rapid, field-deployable system that provides a breakthrough solution in addressing the serious drug-related harm that affects vulnerable parts of our society.”

Dr. Chris Pudney of the Bath Department of Biology and Biochemistry said, “Spice is endemic to homeless communities and prisons. It is highly potent and addicting and carries serious health risks for users such as psychosis, strokes, epileptic seizures and can be fatal.

“We want to provide a system of evidence to both increase the prospect of rapid treatment and to curb the flow of drugs in these communities.”

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