NIST scientist develops way to analyze illegal opioids faster, earns Sammies nod

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One of the difficulties of controlling illegal opioids is that it comes mixed in with other substances. Sometimes detecting it can take hours of chemical analysis and pose dangers to law enforcement lab people. Edward Sisco is a chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who developed a way to cut the analysis time from hours to seconds. For his work, he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Sisco about his work.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Sisco, good to have you in studio.

Edward Sisco: Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Opioid, illegal fentanyl, this kind of thing is very potent, so therefore, it gets cut into other substances as it’s imported — what’s going on here?

Edward Sisco: Yes, so the main issue with fentanyl coming into the country is it’s very toxic, usually you can’t give it pure – so what drug dealers will do is they’ll cut it with a bunch of other material, whether that’s other drugs like heroin, or just inert materials that they have lying around, and then they’ll cut it up, package it and go on and sell it. And so our goal is to figure out technology that can help law enforcement forensic labs do analysis quicker and safer to determine if there’s fentanyl or other potent drugs present in that evidence.

Tom Temin: So it comes in from presumably China as pure, and then the people that receive it, then cut it for distribution in this country.

Edward Sisco: Either in this country or in other countries.

Tom Temin: And by the way, does it come in a liquid? What form does it come in?

Edward Sisco: Typically a white powder.

Tom Temin: And so then what does it get cut with?

Edward Sisco: It can be anything you could imagine. Heroin is a big one, other fentanyls, different types of fentanyls is a big one, things like quinine, and levamisole, veterinary drugs, baby formula powder, lactose, anything that is a powder you might want to put in there, they will.

Tom Temin: So then the people that have to have it then can choose which way they want to take it, as baby food or as a dog biscuit.

Edward Sisco: My assumption is that the person taking it probably doesn’t know what other stuff is in there when they go to take it.

Tom Temin: Yikes. Wow. Then what is the issue with detection – what makes it difficult for labs to to find this out?

Edward Sisco: The biggest thing is because it’s so potent, it’s present in a very low amount, and so all that other stuff that’s mixed in when you go to a chemical analysis, that’s what most instrumentation is going to see. On the second issue as it is so toxic that inhaling just a small amount of it could cause adverse reactions to law enforcement of forensic science. And so we want to be able to detect it without having to open it to get initial detection of Is there something other than we need to be concerned with or not?

Tom Temin: Right. So that was cut into some vitamin pill, for example, I guess there are home pill making machinery nowadays, you wouldn’t want to crush that pill in a lab, lest you get a whiff of whatever is in there. Exactly. Yep. And what is the analysis that’s typically done? Is it a spectrum analysis? Or how does it work?

Edward Sisco: Typically, what they do now in the forensics lab is they’ll take a small amount of that powder, dissolve it in the liquid and run an instrument called GCMS, which gives them the chemical profile of all the different things that are present in that sample. And that takes a couple hours to do a whole analysis.

Tom Temin: Plus, you have to break it up. So if they’re on the trail of someone, and they have to wait a couple of hours, there could be a lost time for law enforcement. And if they have to break it up, then there’s the danger that you mentioned. So what is the technology or technique that you developed?

Edward Sisco: The technique that we’re using is a variant of what’s called Dart direct analysis in real time mass spec, it has similar principles to the analysis they’re using now, but we don’t separate the compounds, which is the big difference in the time savings. And so we can take a swipe, just like when you go to the airport, and they’ll swipe your hands, your baggage for explosive detection, we’ll use those exact same types of swipes, you can swipe the outside of the drug evidence, stick it in an instrument, and then in a number of seconds, you’ll have the results of what’s in there. And this is a sort of optical instrument. Now it’s mass space. So we’re measuring the mass of the molecules in the sample

Tom Temin: From a tiny sample that you might swab with like a Q-tip.

Edward Sisco: Exactly. Yeah. If you see this sample, it’s too much sample for us.

Tom Temin: Wow. You’re a PhD in research chemistry. So this is basically a chemical process.

Edward Sisco: Yep. It’s a chemical analysis process.

Tom Temin: Interesting. And it takes how long then?

Edward Sisco: About three seconds, you’ll have a result

Tom Temin: Does law enforcement require than they have to require special equipment to be able to do this?

Edward Sisco: Yes ,right now it’s a laboratory based instrument, so you’d have to bring the evidence to the laboratory, a forensics lab, and they could do this analysis for you. But they can get you the result much quicker than they could nowadays.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Edward Cisco. He’s a research chemist at NIST and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Just out of curiosity, you’re a young guy, you just have a PhD in chemistry locally from the University of Maryland. How did you happen to get into NIST – what motivated you to join federal service?

Edward Sisco: A little bit of fate. So I got my undergraduate degree at West Virginia University in forensic science, decided that when I was graduating whether I wanted to go into PhD, get a Master’s, decided to get a PhD. And the program I was that actually allowed me to go wherever I wanted to do my research, as long as I could find funding for it. And so through a department defense scholarship, I was able to actually stay at nit or do my PhD research at NIST, and then I was able to get hired on after the fact and

Tom Temin: I haven’t left so what is your contribution to be able to earn a PhD because we’re talking chemistry not Flemish art of the 17th century here.

Edward Sisco: My thesis is really two different areas. One was looking at the chemistry of Layton things prints to see if we can figure out how old a fingerprint is based on the chemistry in it. And the second was trace explosives detection using a similar technology to what we’re discussing today.

Tom Temin: Yeah. So your theme then is very tiny amounts that give very large amounts of data. Yes, exactly. So molecules really, instead of blobs, or tangible amounts. Got it? And what’s it like it missed? I mean, that seems like they are pretty supportive of this type of work.

Edward Sisco: Yeah, NIST has really doubled down in forensics research in the last seven years or so I think it’s a great place to work, it’s, you have a lot of autonomy, you’re able to kind of work very closely with stakeholders. So I’ve worked very closely with a number of the forensics labs locally, internationally. And that really helps us drive what research we’re doing. And our directors are really supportive of that kind of approach.

Tom Temin: And taking this small swab type of technical approach to detecting the elements in a in a particular substance. What happens if the fentanyl is in a tiny cell deep in the pill and you rub the outside and you won’t get the fentanyl or whatever it is you’re looking for or everything that’s in there? Is that a possibility?

Edward Sisco: It’s definitely a possibility. We’ve rigorously tested that. So we’ve gone over, we’ve done over 1000 samples of this type of analysis and we’re at greater than 95% accuracy in predicting what drugs are present in terms of fentanyl. We haven’t missed fentanyl, yet the technique we’re using actually is extremely sensitive to fentanyl more so than other drugs.

Tom Temin: Sure. And the technology and the machinery, is it commercially available at this point? Or does it only exist in in the midst labs,

Edward Sisco: now it is commercially available? And the laboratory could adopt it if they so choose.

Tom Temin: So a large city police lab, for example, or an FBI lab or somewhere could is that what you’ve seen?

Edward Sisco: Yeah. And we have worked with laboratories throughout the country on helping them bring this technology in and up and running. So what’s your next project? We’re really trying to push this type of platform for for surveillance idea. So can we use it to get real time information to help public health efforts in determining if they start seeing a certain type of fentanyl or certain type of compounds being attributed a lot of overdoses can initiate a public health response to help limit the damage. But it

Tom Temin: Strikes me this could be used for detection of adulteration in any number of domains like food where it’s not fentanyl, you’re looking forward. But maybe, I don’t know. Didn’t China itself have an issue with baby formula cut with things that weren’t really proper for a baby to ingest?

Edward Sisco: There’s definitely a number of applications of food agriculture, pesticides would be a big one as well from the agricultural perspective, a number of areas where you could use this type of technology.

Tom Temin: Dr. Edward Cisco is a research chemist at NIST and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Edward Sisco: Thank you.

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