Analysis of legal high materials by ultra-performance liquid chromatography with time of flight mass spectrometry as part of a toxicology vigilance system: what are the most popular novel psychoactive substances in the UK?

Loretta T Ford, Jonathan D Berg
Annals of Clinical Biochemistry 2017, 54 (2): 219-229
Introduction Legal highs also known as novel psychoactive substances mimic the effects of classic drugs of abuse. Challenges to developing screening services for novel psychoactive substances include identifying which novel psychoactive substances are available to target. Using new techniques such as exact mass time of flight can help identify common novel psychoactive substances to target for screening patient samples by routine methods such as tandem mass spectrometry. We demonstrate this strategy working in our own clinical toxicology laboratory after qualitative analysis of 98 suspect materials for novel psychoactive substances by ultra-performance liquid chromatography with time of flight mass spectrometry. Results From July 2014 to July 2015 we received 98 requests to test a range of different suspect materials for novel psychoactive substances including herbs, tobacco, liquids, pills and powders. Overall, 87% of the suspect materials tested positive for novel psychoactive substances, and 15% for controlled drugs. Three common novel psychoactive substances were present in 74% of the suspect materials: methiopropamine, a methamphetamine analogue; ethylphenidate, a cocaine mimic; and the third generation synthetic cannabinoid 5F-AKB-48. For the 55 branded products we tested only 24% of the stated contents matched exactly the compounds we detected. Conclusion Testing suspect materials using ultra-performance liquid chromatography with time of flight mass spectrometry has identified three common novel psychoactive substances in use in the UK, simplifying the development of a relevant novel psychoactive substances screening service to our population. By incorporating this into our routine liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry drugs of abuse screen, then offers a clinically relevant novel psychoactive substances service to our users. This strategy ensures our clinical toxicology service continues to remain effective to meet the challenges of the changing drug use in the UK.

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