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Challenges of testing urine for drugs of abuse

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23rd October, 2023

Testing urine for drugs is a well-accepted scientific process, providing verifiable and reliable results. But testing whether the urine is real and not synthetic or adulterated has been more difficult, until now.

Dr Ashraf Mina is a prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist at NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Ser­vice, based at the Drug Tox­i­col­o­gy Unit, which tests urine sam­ples for evi­dence of drugs, both drugs of abuse and therapeutic.

He says a chance con­ver­sa­tion a cou­ple of years ago got him won­der­ing why there are no defin­i­tive tests to deter­mine that a urine sam­ple is actu­al­ly real human urine.

“There is no stan­dard for it world­wide, there are some attempts to test for the most com­mon para­me­ters in urine, but they can be exact­ly mim­ic­ked in syn­thet­ic urine,” Dr Mina said.

So, he got to work and has devel­oped a nov­el approach to sam­ple valid­i­ty test­ing and he recent­ly pre­sent­ed his find­ings to a research sym­po­sium at West­mead Hospital.

“We’ve designed the test on two lev­els,” Dr Mina explained.

“Lev­el one we test for four para­me­ters – cre­a­ti­nine, pH, spe­cif­ic grav­i­ty, and oxi­dant assay – and they are basi­cal­ly test­ing for both sam­ple dilu­tion and some oth­er iterations.

“If we pick up any­thing, we go to sam­ple valid­i­ty test­ing lev­el two which is this new­ly devel­oped method in which we can analyse 23 dif­fer­ent para­me­ters that are always present in human urine and should be there in a sample.”

Two graphs showing a biological urine sample with many peaks indicating its components, versus a graph of a synthetic urine with far fewer peaks.
No com­par­i­son: the real thing ver­sus syn­thet­ic urine samples.

He says the method is already help­ing to detect cas­es where urine sam­ples have been tam­pered with to avoid drug detection.

“We had a case recent­ly where we found a par­ent drug in a urine sam­ple but not its metabo­lites. When the sam­ple was test­ed by the new method, it seemed to be water spiked with a drug and was not a bio­log­i­cal sample.

“So that’s telling us that some­one topped the water up with some drugs to show that they are tak­ing their med­ica­tion because we didn’t find the drug metabo­lites or any of the 23 mark­ers we iden­ti­fied for urine.”

Dr Mina says the test­ing is done at the same time as the sam­ple is analysed for more than 70 drugs so there is no loss of effi­cien­cy for the laboratory.

“In devel­op­ing this test we asked is it syn­thet­ic urine? Is it sub­sti­tut­ed urine? Is there an added adul­ter­ant to the urine? This method answers all those ques­tions, and we are the only lab in Aus­tralia, and pos­si­bly the world, cur­rent­ly able to do this.”

Dr Mina will also be pre­sent­ing his research at the upcom­ing IAFS con­fer­ence in Syd­ney in Novem­ber 2023.


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