New Scientist
October 8, 2003

Forty-second ecstasy
tablet test developed

A new technique that rapidly analyses ecstasy tablets could provide an early warning system for rogue pills and also police help trace illicit manufacturers.

The method uses Raman spectroscopy to produce a fingerprint for each ecstasy tablet. This reveals the concentration of the active ingredient MDMA plus the identity of any toxic contaminants.

Researchers at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland applied the technique to 1500 ecstasy pills and found that the dose of MDMA in each tablet varied enormously - by as much as five-fold. But they also discovered that none of the pills contained other toxic substances.

"However, the variation in MDMA concentrations that we found could themselves be very dangerous," says Steven Bell, whose team performed the work.

Laser light

In modern Raman spectroscopy, laser light is bounced off a sample and analysed. About one photon in a million is absorbed by the molecules in the material and is re-emitted at a different and characteristic wavelength.

The technique is fast - analysing a pill takes about 40 seconds. In contrast, the gas chromatography technique currently used to analyse drugs takes at least a day.

Forensic detectives are expected to be amongst the first to adopt the technique. It will allow the screening of vast numbers of pills and potentially link the tablets to their manufacturers. This could allow the authorities to build up a more comprehensive picture of the ecstasy production and distribution network.

Bell's work has already provided useful intelligence - that ecstasy production still appears to be a cottage industry. Out of the 1500 pills analysed by Bell's team, all but one were most likely made by different manufacturers, even though 90 per cent were stamped with the same Mitsubishi logo.

Some could have been made by the same person but to a different recipe, Bell says, but overall "it implies that there are lots of different manufacturers producing ecstasy".

Shrink to fit

The researchers now hope to miniaturise the equipment. At present it is about two-thirds the size of a washing machine, but manufacturers are working on shrinking it to the size of a shoebox.

This type of device could then be used on the street or in ports and airports to quickly analyse suspect substances.

Alan Ryder, from the National University of Ireland in Galway, says that Bell's work is likely to prove "especially useful to the authorities". Ryder is also adapting Raman spectroscopy for use as a crime fighting tool. "Eventually the police will be able to take the lab into a squad car with them," he says.

Journal reference: The Analyst (DOI: 10.1039/b308312h)

Danny Penman

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