Imagine, if you will, a small plastic bag containing a mixture of crystals and powder.
The person presenting it thinks “maybe it’s ketamine?”, but admits that the subjective effects are different than they are used to. How do we find out if it’s what they think it is? And what are the consequences if not?
This is a typical scenario for the people who work at canTEST-Australia’s first and only personal drug control service with a fixed location, based in Canberra.
And in this case, it led chemists to discover a drug never seen before in Australia, and with no associated clinical information from anywhere in the world.
Identification of ‘chemical X’
the identification of new psychoactive substancesdrugs made to resemble established illicit drugs are a major challenge in pill testing. Testing a chemical gives us its “fingerprint” that hopefully matches one of thousands stored in databases available to analysts.
But what happens if a fingerprint doesn’t match and we encountered ‘chemical X’?
Which brings us back to the original baggy powder.
Patrick Yates, a Ph.D. candidate from the Australian National University’s Research School of Chemistry, ran the sample through the first device, the Fourier transform infrared spectrometer (FTIR) – a workhorse of many drug control programs around the world.
FTIR works quickly and reliably, even at a bush deaf—as long as there is an electricity supply. It shines a laser on the sample and the “reflection” (a measure of how the drug shakes and wobbles) is recorded and compared to a database of more than 30,000 chemicals.
Patrick’s analysis did not confirm a match with ketamine, but suggested it could be a relatively new ketamine analog called 2-fluorodeschloroketamine (2-FDCK). Patrick’s trained intuition, however, left him in doubt.
PhD student Cassidy Whitefield then turned to an instrument known as ultra-high performance liquid chromatography with photodiode array (UPLC-PDA), which buzzed in the corner at CanTEST. She ran lab standards through it and calibrated the machine for the ten most common drugs we see, including ketamine.
Chemical X had to “run a race” against a known monster and compare it to already known compounds. The UPLC PDA test takes approximately four minutes.
While the sample resembled the ketamine standard, Cassie’s trained eye saw that something was amiss. The speed at which chemical X ran its race (known as the retention time) was similar, but the absorption of ultraviolet radiation was turned off.
Whatever it was, it was real, pretty pure, and neither ketamine nor 2-FDCK.
When in doubt, perform more tests
Ketamine is both an invaluable agent in the emergency and pre-hospital setting, as part of an emerging group of illicit drugs known as arylcyclohexamines.
In consultation with ANU chemistry professor Mal McLeod, the CanTEST team came to the conclusion that chemical X is “ketamine-like”.
The person who brought it in was told that the substance… not ketamine, and its identity could not be established – our group of colleagues advised extreme caution when using it.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for analytical chemists — the full Inquisition had just begun.
Then Chemical X was subjected to a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), meaning the sample was made to “run another race” and then smashed to pieces for further fingerprinting.
The GC-MS data closely correlated with a ketamine derivative known as: fluoroetaminebut the presence of an isomer – two compounds with the same molecular formula but arranged differently – could not be ruled out.
It was time to bring out the big guns: A nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer is a chemist’s rune book. Answers can be found, but only by those few who speak the language well.
Finally, after a series of multidimensional tests, the team found that there were four hydrogen atoms side by side around the aromatic ring, meaning it couldn’t be fluoretamine.
Chemical X can only be something called 2′-fluoro-2-oxo-phenylcyclohexylethylamine. And they had never seen this compound before.
From chemical X to ‘CanKet’
It’s hard to overstate what a phenomenal piece of work this was. We reached out to our outsiders at the UN Office for Drug Control, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, as well as several well-positioned researchers in this space from around the world. No one had seen the compound before.
Our colleagues from the ACT Government Analytical Laboratory wrote to their international colleagues; a global forum of forensic and analytical chemists reviewed their locally obtained data and provided information to support our findings.
We have since found a single other report from China of a forensically obtained analytical sample, where it was described under a different name (2F-NENDCK). Since 2′-fluoro-2-oxo-phenylcyclohexylethylamine is a bit of a mouthful, our team named it CanKet, as in “Canberra ketamine.”
After this feat of chemical analysis, we can now identify CanKet with impunity. We still don’t know the full effects, but understanding the chemical makeup gives us a better idea of what we’re dealing with.
Quote: Australian chemists have discovered an entirely new illegal drug. Here’s How They Did It (2022, October 20) Retrieved October 20, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-illicit-drug-australian-chemists.html
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