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Idaho National Laboratory

From the INEEL Archives
Feature Story

Baring Your Identity - Anit-body test to crack down on drug cheaters

Contributed by Kathy Gatens
October 2002
INEEL scientist, Vicki Thompson

INEEL scientist, Vicki Thompson, has developed a new method of drug detection that promises to spoil the evasive plans of dishonest drug testees.

All those tricksters tempted to cheat on their next drug test - by clandestine swapping of sample vials or by slipping chemical additives into the mix - should think again. INEEL scientists Vicki Thompson and Diane Key, in collaboration with Miragen, Inc., have developed a new method of drug detection that promises to spoil their evasive plans.

With just a few drops of saliva, the INEEL scientists’ method signals drug test results along with the donor’s identity. Their initial findings were reported in the June 2002 publication of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy’s Conference Proceedings, "Counterdrug Research and Development: Technologies for the Next Decade."

The key ingredient in their method is a test strip that highlights individual-specific auto-antibodies (ISAs) - a barcode-like pattern of proteins unique to each person.

"Everyone has them," Thompson said. "And even identical twins have different patterns."

What’s more, the antibody profiling technique delivers the undeniable mark of an individual in just a few simple steps. "In fact, it’s so easy, I’ve had fifth-graders do it," Thompson added.

Traditional drug testing methods don’t measure up

In contrast to Thompson’s test, traditional methods of drug testing generally seek out traces of drugs in urine. That means donors must be afforded the privacy of a bathroom, a factor that can give undue opportunity for sample manipulation or substitution.

In recent years, an entire drug test evasion industry has sprung up, making the prospects even simpler for would-be test fakers. "Just do a web search for drug testing and page after page of products pop up that can be added to urine or that you can drink - and the test comes out clean," Thompson said.

And that’s no joke. For as little as $20, one can order special concoctions promising to flush all unwanted toxins in an hour. In lieu of that, the web-based company, Assured Testing Resources, offers drug-free substitution urine for a mere $35, handily packaged for ease of carrying and delivery at "proper submission temperature."

Cheating is a big problem, Thompson said, particularly in environments such as correctional facilities where inmates are routinely tested. "But with saliva," Thompson added, "they won’t be able to do that as easily."

Not only does the INEEL team’s saliva-based test make doctoring test results difficult, but even if a decoy sample were to get in the mix, it wouldn’t pass muster. The protein bar code would reveal the mismatch when compared with the taker’s unique antibody "fingerprint," and the fraudulent sample could be eliminated in a matter of hours.

Identity in a snap

The profiling test - developed for medical use by the Irvine, California-based biotechnology company, Miragen, Inc., in 1995 - relies on proteins embedded on a strip that recognize and hang on to antibodies present in all body fluids. A series of chemical washes stains the bound proteins, highlighting an array of clear, blue bands.

The INEEL group got involved in 1997 to explore the technology as a forensic tool. First, they looked to the test as an alternative to DNA-based methods of matching suspects to evidence gathered at crime scenes.

The profiling test proved to be an incredibly accurate indicator of identity, even under extremely adverse conditions, according to the team’s earlier work. They were able to match adulterated blood samples - mixed with gasoline, urine, animal blood and even other human samples, conditions mimicking those often found at crime scenes - to a person an impressive 91 percent of the time.

Though there are a large number of bands in the antibody ladder, in most cases, identities can be assigned at a glance because of distinctive spots characteristic of an individual - a thick band here or a missing one there, Thompson said. And the test costs less, takes less time, and requires less technical know-how than DNA-based methods - not to mention its versatility.

"The test can literally be performed in the back of a pickup truck and still work," Thompson said.

While the test has not yet been approved for admission in court, the team’s success led Thompson to pursue other potential law-enforcement applications for the identity screen.

Building a better drug test

To link the antibody test to one able to detect traces of drugs, the INEEL scientists first adapted Miragen’s method for blood screening for use with saliva. Four lucky volunteers then enjoyed sweets - including butterscotch, lemon candy, and chocolate - to ensure these common indulgences didn’t mar the ID’s accuracy. Next, they partook of alcohol, coffee, and even brushed their teeth just before handing over a wad of spit.

The antibody test held true. The culinary splurging had no effect on the outcome of the identity screen.

Add antibodies sensitive to two illegal drugs - cocaine and methamphetamine - into the mix, and a new drug test was born. Further tinkering will be required to perfect the method, but so far, the future looks bright for drug test profiling.

Despite its many benefits, the test does have one drawback - the time it takes to process. Though speedier than DNA-based identity methods, the antibody profile technique is lengthy compared to drug-testing methods lacking an identity screen. The new drug test takes five hours to generate compared to five minutes for urine-based methods.

Still, the reaction from law enforcement officers has been overwhelmingly positive so far, Thompson said. The added identity information outweighs the cost in time.

And there may be ways around the additional hours.

"I’d love to make it faster," Thompson said. "Physically capturing the antibodies on the strips takes time, but if we could miniaturize things with chip technology, we could get the testing time down to as little as ten or fifteen minutes."

Expansive possibilities

The true test of their method is yet to come. Though no final plans have been made, Thompson hopes to bring the identity-drug screen to a real-world situation, trying it out on inmates and comparing the results to those of the standard method.

And don’t be surprised if antibody profiles find their way to other law enforcement arenas. Wildlife organizations have already expressed interest in applying the method to link poachers to their illegal prey, Thompson said, and the test could be used to ensure sporting dogs are clean and sober before a big race.

So take some good advice - stay on the straight and narrow.

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