UC Davis researchers develop breath test for opioids – and aim to make it smaller, faster

Engineers and physicians at the University of California, Davis, have developed a breath test for opioids that they foresee first responders using one day with overdose victims and physicians using in offices to counsel patients on prescription drug use, one of the inventors said Thursday.

Cristina Davis, chair of UC Davis’ Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said that she has been working with Drs. Michael Schivo and Nicholas Kenyon for about 15 years to find the best method to analyze human breaths, and they now have achieved it. The UCD research team published a paper on their findings Thursday in the Journal of Breath Research.

“We’ve developed a sampler that is appropriate in the best way to collect the exhaled breath to detect the opioids, which are present at really small concentrations inside the breath,” Davis said. “We right now sample for about 10 minutes and then we store that sample in the freezer until we can analyze it, and we use a technology called a mass spectrometer to analyze the opioids or any drugs that we see.”

But the large mass spectrometer won’t be needed once the research team has finished their work. And, rather than the 10-minute sampling interval, Davis said, their device will be able to collect a sample in a minute by the time it goes to market. She added that the UCD researchers envision a device as small as the Breathalyzers that law enforcement use in the field — and perhaps even less expensive than those devices.

The test works not only on opioids but on many different drugs, Davis said, and it can detect not only the drugs but also metabolized versions of the drugs. The lightweight, handheld version of the sampler could be ready for development in one to three years, Davis said, and her team expects it to have many uses.

“I think that the roadside (field sobriety) testing for law enforcement is definitely a possibility,” she said. “We also have applications for clinicians to be able to help their patients understand if they’re taking their drug regimens in the proper ways. Are they compliant with taking the drugs that they’ve been prescribed?”

The samplers could potentially help everyone from diabetics to people with mental illness to elderly patients who are forgetful.

Davis said that doctors “would be able to see: Do they have the correct concentration in their system that was what was prescribed? Do they appear to be taking it at the right time frames and intervals? Some patients have difficulties in following those types of directions, and being able to assess that they’re having the correct drug effect would be very important.”

The UC Davis researchers also got help from scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

They had to use the mass spectrometer, a set testing interval and other scientific processes as part of their painstaking work to prove their concept, Davis said, but now that they’ve shown the accuracy of their methods, they can focus on developing a sampler built for rapid detection and portability. In the end, she added, the device may come in multiple forms.

In testing the sampler, Davis and her colleagues were able to compare what they detected from the breaths with what they found in each test subject’s blood samples, considered the gold standard in this type of research.

“We saw a very nice correlation between those two, indicating this has real promise as an accurate test,” she said. “What we need to do going forward in the future is to take that sampler and have it become … a real time detection system, so that you can get your answer in less than a minute.”

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.