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UBC researchers using new portable drug testing robot at Shambhala music festival

A group of researchers from the University of British Columbia have created a new, portable drug testing machine.

Their new prototype will be rolled out at the Shambhala Music Festival in the Kootenays this weekend.

Current drug testing tools are not portable, according to associate professor Jason Hein.

That’s why he and his team worked to make a smaller machine with the same efficiency as the large, advanced machines used by pharmacists – delivering results in just 15 minutes.

“We know how to do this for pharma, why don’t we take the tools and skills that we have to build a robot that can do that expert testing?” Hein said. "Somebody will put something in to it, the robot does its thing, prepares the sample, runs the sample, extracts the data and says, ‘Here's what's in it.’”

While the explanation may sound simple, the technology used is extremely advanced, he says, compared to other tools currently being used on the market, such as test strips.

The UBC prototype uses high-performance liquid chromatography to automate the process.

Current portable testing techniques require technicians and can’t detect more than five compounds in a sample at a time, according to UBC.

"Really, the reason why it hasn't happened before is because a tool like this is expensive and huge, so we had to find a way of using a robot and miniaturizing it to make something that could be deployed broadly," Hein said.

According to the province, there are 105 drug testing sites across B.C.

Guy Felicella, who is a peer clinical advisor with the B.C. Centre for Substance Use, says the quicker results will be revolutionary.

“If you can go there and get it done in one shot quicker, time-wise, it’ll make people look to testing their substances more instead of going through the process of waiting a long time for their results,” said Felicella.

A potentially low-barrier and anonymous tool is something he says could save lives.

"The risk of somebody who doesn't do fentanyl and goes and buys a stimulant and it turns out to be fentanyl are catastrophic," Felicella said.

Researchers say their next step is allowing UBC students to access a drop box where they can place a sample of any substance they want tested.

According to Hein, there are endless ideas for where the portable drug-checking machine could be brought into the market. He said he hopes to see a kiosk on the Downtown Eastside. Top Stories

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