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Distinguishing Between Structurally Similar Designer Drugs Using an Advanced Method of Chromatography

Identifying a new drug that is very similar in structure to other drugs is important for investigators. Researchers in this project determined that these drugs may be better separated using ultra high-performance supercritical fluid chromatography.
Date Published
February 25, 2018

Chemists in designer drug factories, many located in China, routinely make slight molecular changes to existing illicit drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, to circumvent United States controlled substances laws. Separation of these new, structurally similar compounds is often currently done using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or gas chromatography (GC).

The researchers in this NIJ-supported project, led by forensic chemist Ira Saul Lurie at George Washington University, investigated the role of ultra-high performance  supercritical fluid chromatography (UHPSFC) as a separation technique for forensic drug analysis. Emerging seized drugs, they noted, may “contain similar solutes such as analogues, homologues, positional isomers, and stereoisomers.” These classes of drugs, particularly the isomers, “can present particularly difficult separation challenges for which UHPSFC appears well suited.”

Their experiments on synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones were “designed to answer the question whether UHPSFC is a viable technique for forensic drug analysis, and whether as expected it is particularly well suited, compared to conventional techniques, for the separation of closely related substances … which are present in emerging drug exhibits.”

After testing the different chromatography methods on synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, the researchers concluded, “The use of UHPSFC would greatly assist the criminal justice system in the adjudication of emerging drug cases. In particular, it would aid in determining which if any controlled substances are present in seized drugs, particularly in the area of emerging drugs.” The project demonstrated that UHPSFC has the “potential to be superior” to other chromatography methods for the analysis of very similar emerging drugs, the researchers said.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award number 2014-R2-CX-K009, awarded to George Washington University.

This article is based on the grantee report, “The Utility of Ultra High Performance Supercritical Fluid Chromatography for the Analysis of Seized Drugs: Application to Synthetic Cannabinoids and Bath Salts” (pdf, 103 pages), by Ira Saul Lurie, George Washington University. 

Date Published: February 25, 2018