Public Release: 

Swortwood to investigate prevalence of synthetic opioids in saliva

Sam Houston State University


IMAGE: Madeleine Swortwood, assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University, received a National Institute of Justice grant to develop a lab test for synthetic opioids... view more 

Credit: Harriet McHale

HUNTSVILLE, TX (10/24/17) -- A research team at Sam Houston State University received a $311,000 National Institute of Justice grant to develop a new laboratory test for synthetic opioids and heroin using saliva and to investigate the prevalence of these drugs among prisoners and arrestees.

"The United States is in the middle of an opioid pandemic, leading to more drug overdoses in a single weekend than typically happen in several months in some major cities," said Assistant Professor Madeleine Swortwood of the Department of Forensic Science. "According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, opioids are found in 82 percent of fatal overdoses."

Synthetic opioids can be hundreds or thousands of times more potent than heroin and can produce severe intoxication or even death when abused. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate for synthetic opioids other than methadone increased by 72 percent from 2014 to 2015. In November, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed a temporary emergency ban on one of the synthetic opioids, citing an "imminent threat to public health and safety." The drug was found in powder and pill form and mimicked prescription pills or was added to heroin and fentanyl.

In an effort to measure the prominence of these drugs in the U.S., Swortwood and Ph.D. Student Michael Truver are developing a test to detect synthetic opioids, heroin and a heroin substitute, buprenorphine, in saliva. Samples are collected by placing a small pad in the mouth, which is capable of collecting 1 milliliter of fluid. These samples will be obtained from populations of inmates, arrestees and those suspected of driving under the influence.

"Many synthetic opioids are not illegal yet," said Swortwood. "Prisoners are subject to random drug tests and this will be a good opportunity to see the prevalence of these drugs in prisons."

Although many drug tests are conducted using blood or urine samples, saliva is not widely used. Saliva is quicker and easier to obtain, less invasive, and is more likely to be approved for collection, Swortwood said.

Swortwood was able to develop the testing method through a $15,000 enhancement grant provided by Sam Houston State University. Swortwood will initially test for four synthetic opioids, including the one banned by the DEA, which was implicated in 46 deaths in New York and North Carolina and identified in 88 crime labs across the country.

"Saliva is really easy to collect," said Swortwood. "Unlike a blood sample, it does not require a nurse to draw it. There are also privacy issues for the collection of urine. This method uses a swab to collect one milliliter of saliva, which along with the buffer provides four milliliters for testing. These samples could be tested on various types of machines and instruments."

This method could help save time and money in the laboratory by allowing multiple drugs to be tested using a single sample. The method also could be used for workplace testing and drug treatment programs.


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