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Designing Methods to Identify Evolving Designer Drugs

Date Published
July 10, 2017

Forensic laboratories face an ongoing problem of trying to analyze and identify designer drugs that, by definition, are being created in clandestine laboratories to have slight structural differences from previous versions of the drug.  As soon as a drug is listed as a controlled substance in the United States, chemists in designer drug laboratories, found predominantly in China, quickly change an atom or two of that drug and create a new substance that isn’t controlled.

This is particularly true of designer drugs known as “bath salts,” synthetic drugs that are chemically related to cathinone, a stimulant found in the khat plant.   Synthetic cathinones have become a popular alternative to other illicit drugs, such as cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), and methamphetamines, due to their potent psychostimulant and empathogenic effects.

Researchers from Auburn University, with funding from the National Institute of Justice, used general chemical techniques to develop methods to chemically identify designer modifications in three distinct regions of the cathinone molecule: the aromatic ring, the alkyl side chain, and the amino group. “It is clear,” the researchers said, that modifications in these regions “are currently being explored by clandestine chemists.” This interest indicates there will likely be future changes in the molecule, especially as current cathinones are identified and legally controlled. “Legal control of a specific molecule often provides the driving force for clandestine development of additional substituted cathinone designer molecules,” the researchers said.

The project developed methods that enable the identification of ring-substituted aminoketone compounds, which are cathinone derivatives. The methods increase the forensic drug chemistry knowledge base for aminoketone-type designer drugs and the research generated proactive data for the forensic analyst. The researchers also detail “a unified approach for specific drug identification” based on structural changes to a molecule.

They noted that standard forensic analytic methodology could not readily differentiate and identify most of the analogue substances in the “increasing structurally diverse aminoketone derivatives in clandestine samples.” By developing a framework of analytical properties and their relationship to drug structure, the researchers said, “the project has yielded results that will provide for a more capable scientifically prepared forensic expert to interact at the interface of the legal system and the science of forensic drug chemistry.”

And as clandestine laboratories develop new variations of bath salts, the researchers said, “the methods developed as part of this research can be used to readily identify new designer analogues as they emerge.”

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ cooperative agreement number 2013-DN-BX-K022, awarded to Auburn University. This article is based on the grantee report: “Bath Salt-type Aminoketone Designer Drugs: Analytical and Synthetic Studies on Substituted Cathinones”(pdf, 28 pages), by Randall Clark.

Date Published: July 10, 2017