Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $327,558)
Evolving drug landscapes and regulations can create analytical challenges for forensic laboratory processing of seized drug evidence. These challenges require evaluating currently used methods and identifying avenues for generating more reliable, reproducible, accurate, and unbiased results. In general, improvements can be broken into two separate considerations--technology and methodology advancements.
When samples are seized for subsequent forensic laboratory analysis, an analytical workflow of multiple techniques is used to achieve a sufficient level of selectivity for a scientifically supported conclusion. This is generally a multistep process that includes screening and confirmation. Color testing is the predominant screening method used because of the low cost, quick turnaround time for results, and simplicity in which color changes are observed visually. However, color test limitations can include subjective color interpretation, improper test use, fully manual procedure, incorrect results reported, uncontrolled substance interferents, and multiple individual color tests required for illicit drug identification, which all provide the potential for user error or unreliable results.
Cutting-edge microfluidic technologies from adjacent industries can offer several advantages to address these challenges through automation, objective analysis, performing multiple tests in parallel, and compatibility with laboratory information management systems (LIMS). Phase 1 of this proposed research will investigate an innovative microfluidic platform for automating routine color test procedures and performing multiple tests simultaneously. Subsequently, Phase 2 will focus on the development of complementary objective analysis, providing a robust quantitative metric for interpreting color test results that is unbiased, traceable, and LIMS-compatible. While Phases 1 and 2 aim to improve workflows through technology advancements, Phase 3 will investigate practitioner-identified method-based improvements by utilizing the microfluidic platform to incorporate and investigate drug immunoassays to augment routine color tests.
Because the results from forensic laboratory workflows ultimately contribute to criminal justice outcomes, it is crucial to increase confidence in these tests and provide improvements to incorporate unbiased and quantifiable metrics. This work will be performed on a readily available microfluidic platform for more streamlined technology transition and implementation efforts. Advanced microfluidic platforms are advantageous for addressing current challenges in a format that can also be adaptable for future considerations and forensic workflow changes, such as the recent development and ongoing implementation of a new color test for Cannabis typification. Moreover, allowing for the incorporation of drug immunoassays alongside routine color tests could provide increased reliability, specificity, and sensitivity in addition to the technology improvements from automated operation and analysis.