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The new technology behind drug testing

Posted In Health & Technology - By Techtiplib on Friday, January 2nd, 2015 With No Comments »

As awareness of illegal drug use increases in society, so too does the demand for drug testing in all areas of life. Many firms now require a drug test before a job offer is confirmed, and often on a regular basis throughout the term of employment. Athletes and sportspeople are now frequently tested for the presence of drugs, performance enhancing or otherwise. Schools, universities and the military may also carry out drug testing, as well as emergency services and law enforcement in the wake of an incident that may have been influenced by drug use.

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As the demand for drug testing increases, the technology used becomes ever more sophisticated. Today, a variety of drug testing procedures is available, and levels of accuracy and efficiency are advancing in what is a booming and competitive field. While hospitals, police and the military may have their own drug testing facilities, most institutions and employers will use a local laboratory to undertake and process the testing. Various methods exist, but all work on essentially the same principles. 

However they are ingested, all drugs, whether legal or illegal, degrade within the body after releasing their active compound into the bloodstream. The remaining by-products are known as metabolites and can be detected at the point of excretion, for example via the urine. Initial screening of urine samples is done using immunoassays that work via antigen-antibody interaction; antibodies are chosen that bind selectively with drug metabolites, and these are then detected either with enzymes, radioactive isotopes or fluorescent compounds. 

The metabolites commonly looked for in a typical five-panel test are those from cannabinoids, cocaine, PCP, opiates and amphetamines (including methamphetamine). A ten-panel test is also sometimes employed that may include legal prescription drugs, alcohol or steroids. Modern laboratories can also determine if an applicant has tried to alter their test sample, for instance by drinking excessive water or by using a product designed to mask drug use. 

As well as urine testing, an oral fluid lab test is another increasingly popular method of drug detection, as it’s quick and efficient, easy to use, accurate and relatively non-invasive. A swab placed between the applicant’s teeth and gum collects fluid for analysis. Of the other methods, blood testing is the most accurate, but it is expensive and intrusive and tends to be used only in accident investigations or medicals for health and life insurance. Hair testing detects metabolites that remain permanently on hair strands, but it too is expensive and time consuming.

The latest development in drug testing is intelligent fingerprinting technology, which detects metabolites in fingerprint residue via gold nanoparticles covered in binding antibodies. Less invasive than other methods, it also has the advantage of built-in identification.

There’s no doubt that drug testing is going to become increasingly sophisticated and accurate as technology advances to meet the growing demand from employers and institutions. As major firms become more security conscious and demand that their global employees all meet the same personal standards, drug testing looks to become a fact of life that no company will want to risk doing without.

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