By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Chronic pain patients have grown accustomed to having their urine -- and sometimes their blood and hair – analyzed for opioids and other drugs.
Someday soon they could be taking opioid breathalyzer tests.
In a small pilot study, researchers at the University of California, Davis have developed and successfully tested a device that collects minute droplets in breath that can be analyzed in a laboratory for morphine, hydromorphone (Dilaudid) and other opioids.
“Exhaled breath collection represents a painless, easily available, and non-invasive technique that would enable clinicians to make quick and well-informed decisions,” said lead author Cristina Davis, PhD, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis. "There are a few ways we think this could impact society."
While ostensibly developed to help doctors care for patients and monitor their drug use, Davis and her colleagues say opioid breathalyzer tests could someday be used in addiction treatment and by law enforcement during roadside field sobriety tests.
They reported their findings in the Journal of Breath Research.
“Breath offers the opportunity to collect a diagnostic biospecimen non-invasively and, eventually, a way to obtain near real-time results almost anywhere. Though this study did not utilize portable analytic systems, future breath drug detection platforms used to identify targeted compounds will be available for point-of-care use. This will enable opioid detection in many settings including roadside, drug treatment facilities, field emergency response, home, and rural areas with limited access to healthcare,” Davis wrote.
Nine patients receiving opioids for cancer pain at the UC Davis Medical Center participated in the pilot study, along with three healthy people used as a control group. Participants exhaled through a glass tube surrounded by dry ice that captured and froze breath condensate. The breath samples was then analyzed in a lab using mass spectrometry and compared to opioid metabolites in blood samples and in doses given to patients.
"We can see both the original drug and metabolites in exhaled breath," Davis said.
Fully validating the breath test will require more data from larger groups of patients. UC Davis researchers are working towards the development of real-time, point-of-care breath tests that can be broadly used to detect opioids and other drugs.
Point-of-care (POC) urine drug tests are widely used by doctors to screen patients for illicit drugs and to make sure they’re taking medications as prescribed. Physicians like the immunoassay test strips because they can be performed in their offices, are inexpensive and give immediate results.
However, as PNN has reported, POC test results are wrong about half the time – and frequently give false positive or false negative results for drugs like marijuana, oxycodone and methadone. Experts say doctors should never base a treatment decision or discharge a patient solely on the results of one POC test, and that confirmatory testing should always be performed by a laboratory.