Drug detection as easy as taking a swipe of someone's sweat could someday be in the hands of law enforcement, thanks to research conducted at the Arkansas Biosciences Institute at Arkansas State University.
"The hardest problems in science are often solved with just one question," said Robyn Hannigan, associate professor of chemistry and physics at ASU.
During testing of tobacco smoke, fellow researcher Roger Buchanan asked Hannigan to develop a test that would allow him to measure the amount of nicotine absorbed by lab rats. He wanted a test that was a lot faster than traditional tests that required a blood sample to be analyzed.
Hannigan and her students developed a swipe test to allow a drop of saliva or sweat to be measured.
"Then we thought, 'Hey, if you can do this for a drug like nicotine, why not cannabis or methamphetamine?' It turns out you can," Hannigan said.
Hannigan patented the process and is now working to develop it into a working model for human testing. She and her company, Hyphenated Solutions Inc., have begun pursuing Federal Drug Administration approval for the technique and grants from the National Institutes of Health.
"The possibility is one day a police officer, school official or doctor will check for the presence of drugs in minutes instead of hours," she said.
Hannigan and partner David Clark, president of HSI, have decided to market the ideas they create by answering the questions asked by other scientists. Their company grew out of another case that led the ABI researchers and lab students to develop a conduit between two Perkin-Elmer analysis tools to facilitate experiments in tobacco smoke.
"We had a question: How do you measure the metal in tobacco smoke?" Hannigan said. "We had a machine that could isolate the smoke into elemental structures, but we had no way to get those isolated gas particles to the machine that measured the metals."
So Hannigan, three students and Clark developed a conduit between the two machines that allowed the transfer of the material while maintaining the gas state.
"It was really just us saying, 'How do we do this?' And then doing it," Hannigan said. "It was not until we started saying ... 'we did this,' that we started to realize we had something no one else had."
Hannigan contacted Perkin-Elmer and told them of the transfer line.
"We then stepped back and said 'What do we do to market this?'" Hannigan said.
Hannigan contacted the department of technology and research transfer at ASU, a newly developed component of ABI, which helped Hannigan incorporate and patent her technology.
"We formed Hyphenated Solutions Inc.," she said. "We signed a licensing agreement with Perkin-Elmer, and then we stepped back and looked for other technologies we had developed. The university owns our research, and we license the patent from ASU, and then Perkin-Elmer buys the product from us."
Led by David Clark, a doctoral student at ASU and a former Hannigan student, the company is in talks with a Midwest tribal government to test its drug-detection system.
"The group we are in contact with is really interested in using a tool like this to combat a rising methamphetamine problem on their land," Hannigan said. "They have lots of money they would bring to the development and research phase of the project. We hope down the road to have this in the back of every police car to aid in detection. It is really an exciting prospect for our little question."