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Scientists working on new forensic field tests for illicit drugs

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, scientists and researchers study drugs and how they could potentially interact with law enforcement and first responders, who may encounter them while working out in the field.
NIST research chemist Edward Sisco works with law enforcement forensic teams to figure out how illicit, and sometimes previously unknown, drugs can be handled safely - and what exactly they were made of.
Amber Burns, forensic chemistry manager for Maryland State Police, has collaborated with scientists at the NIST to come up with ways to safely test unknown drugs encountered by law enforcement out in the field during investigations.
Posted at 12:32 PM, Apr 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 12:32:04-04

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — In a windowless room, under fluorescent lights, Edward Sisco thinks about one question.

“How do we get them a rapid answer in a safe manner?” he asked.

Sisco is a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, located on a sprawling, federal scientific campus in Maryland. Inside these labs, scientists and researchers study drugs – specifically opioids – and how they could potentially interact with law enforcement, who may encounter them while working out in the field.

“I would say six or seven years ago, we didn't even really have a program,” Sisco said.

Marcela Najarro is the director of the Forensic Science Research Program at the NIST.

“We've really seen a big change in terms of our research,” she said.

That change came about because the opioid crisis emerged, along with other synthetic drugs, like fentanyl.

“It's a big issue because it's a much more potent drug, and so there's a risk of inhalation,” Najarro said.

As first responders, law enforcement, and forensic technicians increasingly encountered variations of those drugs, figuring out how to handle them safely and what exactly they were made of became crucial.

“Law enforcement needs an effective tool to screen for substances in a timely manner,” said Amber Burns, forensic chemistry manager for Maryland State Police.

Burns turned to the researchers for help because the drug testing kits previously used in the field, like for cocaine or heroin, were ineffective with the new drugs.

“Those tests are no longer that reliable,” she said.

So, together, they tried to come up with some solutions to that. Now, they’re working on new drug detection tools that could be used across the country.

“We're looking for a replacement to that, where we can get information about what the sample contains without having to do a lot of handling of the substance,” Burns said.

At the NIST, having the collaboration with Burns and others in law enforcement has been welcomed by researchers.

“It's made sure that our work is really exactly what they need at the time they need it,” Sisco said.

However, the goal is not just to help law enforcement, they say, but also public health by quickly identifying variations of opioids making the rounds that can lead to spikes in overdoses.

“We're hoping to share this information in real time, and hopefully, prevent overdoses by getting that information out to the public quicker,” Burns said.

It’s a chemistry that has become increasingly critical in an evolving opioid crisis.