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Drug identification: cooperation with UvA and National Police

Date of news: 5 June 2020

The global synthetic drug market has been rapidly expanding to include many novel psychoactive substances (NPS). These designer drugs have chemical structures closely related to ‘traditional’ drugs. Due to the minor variations in molecular structure these NPS induce similar psychoactive effects, but change their legal status and potentially cause severe health effects. Common approaches for isomeric drug identifications are limited. Using infrared ion spectroscopy at FELIX Laboratory, researchers were able to identify NPS even with limited (or none) availability of reference samples, sample impurities or mixtures. This is highly beneficial for the forensic field.

Between 2009 and 2018 it is estimated that 892 NPS were introduced. The limited approaches for isomeric drug identifications produces serious analytical challenges for forensic laboratories. Using three isomers of fluoroamphetamine and two ring-isomers of both MDA and MDMA, researchers demonstrate the ability of infrared ion spectroscopy (IRIS) to distinguish closely related NPS. When reference standards were not available, computationally predicted infrared (IR) spectra are exploited to correspond with experimental spectra for preliminary identification and to explain the molecular origins of their distinctive IR absorption bands.

IR spectrum

Experimental IR spectrum for an unknown m/z 212 ion in a confiscated street sample (black line), overlaid with computed IR spectra for all six chloroethcathinone and chlorodimethylmethcathinone isomers (blue shading). From this results, we conclude that the confiscated street sample most likely contains 4-CdMC.

Identification of the precise isomeric forms is of significant forensic relevance since legal controls are dependent on even minor molecular differences. The health effects of NPS are usually unknown. Thus, consumers are exposed to “legal” drugs having unknown and potentially serious effects on health, including death. The ability to identify the substances even with the limited availability of reference samples, sample impurities or mixtures, and trace analysis, is highly beneficial for the forensic field.


Mass-Spectrometry-Based Identification of Synthetic Drug Isomers Using Infrared Ion Spectroscopy, Ruben F. Kranenburg, Fred A. M. G. van Geenen, Giel Berden, Jos Oomens, Jonathan Martens and  Arian C. van Asten, Analytical Chemistry 92, 10, 7282–7288 (2020)

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Fred van Geenen