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Border detection of illicit drugs and precursors by highly accurate electrosensors

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BorderSens (Border detection of illicit drugs and precursors by highly accurate electrosensors)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

Combining robust sensor technologies with the inherent advantages of electrochemical strategies, nano-molecularly imprinted polymers, and multivariate and pattern data analysis, BorderSens enables highly accurate selective detection of trace levels of illicit drugs and precursors. With borders being important gateways for the entrance of illicit drugs and their precursors, custom and border control authorities are facing challenges to detect such dangerous substances and safeguard the public. In the light of a pressing need for better drug test systems at EU borders, the ultimate research aim of the BorderSens is to develop a portable, wireless prototype devices with the capability to quickly test for different types of drugs, precursors and adulterants/cutting agents, with outstanding accuracy and reduced false positives and false negatives.

• Rapid and simultaneous electrochemical detection and identification of illicit drugs (including cutting agents and adulterants) and their precursors. BorderSens targets at detecting illicit drugs and precursors that pose real, pertaining challenges to EU border control authorities, by active participation of end-users as partners (10 organisations) and members of the advisory board.
• Excellent selectivity and sensitivity and outstanding accuracy, through the combination of innovative and advanced smart nanomaterials i.e. nanoMIPs, electrochemical methods, and multivariate analysis and pattern data analysis with specifications to allow analysis in-field.
• Development of a low cost user-friendly handheld (wireless) prototype device for drug detection on-site, demonstrated in-field that is used by different authorities without scientific knowledge or training, with alarm function for new substances.

Reduce false positives and false negatives in the detection of illicit drugs and precursors from commercial devices (e.g. presumptive color tests and spectroscopic devices). Notwithstanding its’ wide spread use, the colour tests are prone to both false positive and false negative results as well as faulty identification failing to warrant the necessary top-quality screening in on-site settings.
Portable spectroscopic devices based on Raman spectroscopy exhibit some drawbacks, particularly with colored samples, and the high cost and low portability of the devices hinder the deployment of these devices among border settings. BorderSens brings a solution to both inaccurate colour tests and expensive spectroscopic devices targeting conventional samples, colored samples and challenging smuggled samples (e.g. impregnated cloth, charcoal, or impregnated wood).

In general, the outcome of Bordersens device would greatly impact the “war on drugs”, since drug trafficking and abuse is of major concern in modern societies, having devastating effects on communities, families and individuals, being linked to other criminal- and terrorist activities, straining government institutions, and dragging down the wider economy. Particularly, Bordersens device facilitates the work of law enforcement officers in the borders as well as in forensic laboratories by unravelling the presence of illicit drugs in challenging samples.
The methodology described in the grant proposal has been successfully executed along this first period of the project. Accordingly, Phase 1 (i.e. End-user requirements, identification of the most used illicit drugs and precursors in Europe) was accomplished in WP2 before the pandemic started. Besides, information from the end-users about the potential prototype was obtained from digital surveys which was implemented in the first consumable. Phase 2 (i.e. technology development) is in progress. The electrochemical profiles of several illicit drugs and precursors have been studied including mixtures of adulterants and illicit drugs. Furthermore, preliminary tests with real samples have been successfully performed. The modelling and synthesis of some nanoMIPs for specific illicit drugs have been carried out, although there are still some nanoMIPS missing according to the end-user requirements (top 5 illicit drugs). The fabrication of single screen-printed electrodes (SPE) and the array have been executed and delivered to the research partners. Currently, testing of the array and the comparison with the SPE is being fulfilled. The integration of nanomaterials and nanoMIPs is ongoing. In parallel, product development is being done based on the feedback from the first consumable and the updated feedback of the end-users. Indeed, different consumables or subprototypes are under development to fulfil each end-users’ needs (e.g. bulky prototypes for on-site testing, and smaller consumables for the use in laboratory settings). Last but not least, secure communication and development of all the sub-units that will conform the prototype are being elaborated. Overall, the results obtained in the first half of the project allow to validate some of the current technologies of the BorderSens portfolio at end-user settings. In this sense, end-user missions are ongoing to test real samples and benchmark with commercial devices.
Progress on the research in electrochemical sensors for the detection of illicit drugs and precursors is on-track. Importantly, several manuscripts published in peer-reviewed journals demonstrate the novelty beyond the state of the art. These results are combined into different libraries of electrochemical profiles that assist in the construction of several detection strategies. Remarkably, three approaches are studied during the project which will lead to potential products targeting end-users specifications all employing electrochemical technologies:
i) nanoMIPS strategy aiming for high selectivity of a specific target detection;
ii) unmodified SPE aiming for the screening of suspicious samples for a confirmation of a set of samples (e.g. cocaine);
iii) modified electrodes (either nanomaterials or chemical modifications) following a similar screening approach as the unmodified electrodes, but showing complementary information, pursuing the confirmation of a set of targets (e.g. opioids or amphetamine-type substances).
iv) combination of different type of electrodes/materials to increase the identification of a broad set of targets.

Scheme 1.

Overall, BorderSens expect to provide a reusable device with different consumables each one targeting a group of end-users. Each consumable can be modified with nanoMIPS, unmodified or nanomaterials which will target a specific use case. We aim to provide a similar approach used in the field (e.g. presumptive color testing based on a flow chart), but with much more accuracy and reliability.
The valorisation of the electrochemical technologies will be accomplished by providing a prototype that addresses end-users’ needs. This is accomplished by including all the feedback from the end-users into the design of the prototype. Therefore, the IP from the prototypes will be licensed or implemented in the creation of a startup at the end of the project, maximizing the socio-economic impact of BorderSens. The availability of a new technology/product in the market will facilitate the work of law enforcement agencies. All in all, the decrease in the amount of illicit drugs available in the market will provide a secure and healthy society.
logo BorderSens
Electrochemical technologies to be included in the consumable/prototype.