Testing for cocaine and other drugs usually involves two steps: a quick on-site prescreen, and then a more accurate confirmatory test at a distant laboratory. This process can take days or weeks.
In a study published in ACS' journal Analytical Chemistry, researchers explained that the current two-stage system of testing urine for drugs of abuse is expensive and time-consuming. The samples also could get lost or compromised while in transport.
The ideal solution, researchers said, is to skip the pre-screening step and instead bring the lab to the site - but in an easy-to-use, portable package.
Currently, when samples arrive at labs for confirmation testing, trained technicians use a "gold-standard" method, relying on sample processing, liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyse them.
Small versions of instruments that implement these techniques can provide results at or near lab-quality, but they haven't been optimised and tested together as a single, portable instrument.
The new research put together a compact system that can do all the steps - extracting drugs of abuse from urine with a microfluidic device coupled to a small mass spectrometer that can identify the substances.
The backpack-sized instrument could analyse cocaine, benzoylecgonine (a metabolite of cocaine) and codeine in four samples in less than 15 minutes, researchers said.