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A knockout blow for knockout drops: a rapid test for nightclubs

Abuse of butyric acid derivatives in Swiss nightclubs is on the rise: low doses of gamma hydroxy- butyrate (GHB) and gamma butyrolactone (GBL) give a feeling of euphoria and have names such as Fantasy, Liquid Ecstasy or Blue Nitro in the club scene.

 The main problem however is not voluntary consumption. “These substances are particularly dangerous because they are put into other people’s drinks as knockout drops – so-called ‘date rape’ drugs. They lead first to dizziness and nausea and in less than half an hour they cause a coma,” reports HLS biochemist Eric Kübler. After waking up, victims usually remember nothing at all. To help prevent this, Kübler, his research group and industry experts are developing a rapid test that shows in seconds whether a drink has been laced with the dangerous chemicals.
The research team discovered how to detect these substances chemically in a previous project. “We found that an enzyme test was most suitable,” says Kübler. Transferring this method from the lab to the bar requires the test to be practical, clear and cheap. The solution is an inconspicuous strip of filter paper, impregnated with the chemical test system and attached to a plastic holder. If a drink contains GHB or GBL, the test strip dipped in it turns dark purple in seconds, making it easy for people to check drinks themselves. The chemical test system consists of five substances, of which three, the enzymes, are still produced on a laboratory scale; the HLS’s new process technology centre will be used to scale-up production for larger quantities. Kübler: “We can produce enough enzymes there even if the complete product is ready for the market and produced on an industrial scale.” In-house production not only keeps costs down but was important for the development process, as the researcher explains: “A big challenge was that alcohol and sweet or sour mixers trigger background reactions that can also cause the test strip to turn purple; the enzymes must act rapidly but must not give false positives. That’s why we tested several variants of the enzymes, all of which we had to produce first.” The researchers are currently testing the shelf life of the first industrially produced batch. The ‘dip&read’ test strips will soon be available free of charge at bars and clubs in the same way as ear plugs at concerts.

FHNW School of Life Sciences

FHNW University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland School of Life Sciences Hofackerstrasse 30 CH - 4132 Muttenz
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