Engineers and physicians at the University of California, Davis have developed a breath test to detect possible opioid use.

Here’s how it works: subjects of the test breathe normally into a specialized collection device, generating droplets in the breaths that condense and are then stored in a freezer until the testing is completed.

Researchers at the university developed the technique among a small group of patients receiving infusions of pain medications including morphine and hydromorphone, or oral doses of oxycodone, enabling them to compare opioid metabolites with both blood samples and the doses given to patients.

“We can see both the original drug and metabolites in exhaled breath,” said Professor Cristina Davis, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis.

Davis said there “are a few ways we think this could impact society,” one of which is the ability to detect illegal drug use. Another way could be enabling doctors to make sure patients are taking their drugs correctly.

“We’ve developed a sampler that is appropriate in the best way to collect the exhaled breath to detect the opioids, which are present at really small concentrations inside the breath,” Davis told the Sacramento Bee. “We right now sample for about 10 minutes and then we store that sample in the freezer until we can analyze it, and we use a technology called a mass spectrometer to analyze the opioids or any drugs that we see.”

The Future of the Test

Researchers will need a larger data sample to validate the test, meaning that they will continue to experiment on other subjects. But the university envisions real-time testing, providing a less invasive way to test for drugs than collecting a blood sample.

Davis told the Sacramento Bee that her team ultimately hopes to create a device that is as small as the breathalyzer devices used by law enforcement. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 50 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids, while Johns Hopkins Medicine said that all opioid deaths—including those stemming from street drugs like heroin—account for the deaths of 115 Americans every day. The CDC said in 2017 that prescription opioids were involved in more than 35 percent of all opioid overdose deaths.

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