New THC Detection System Promises to Step Beyond Law Enforcement Use

by | Nov 26, 2019

Written by Kristina Etter

Kristina is a digital content creator and designer. She has a talent for creating engaging and informative content that resonates with our professional audience. Kristina’s passion for the cannabis industry stems from her belief that it has the potential to revolutionize the world in many ways, and has a personal testimony of cannabis success.

When discussing THC detection technology, conversations typically move to roadside testing, driving under the influence, and arguments about differences between cannabis and alcohol. However, when we take a step back and examine the full potential of THC detection, we can easily garner a wide range of benefits across the board.

This week, Cannabis Tech spoke with Dr. Shalini Prasad, interim department head of bioengineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at the UT Dallas, about the Rapid Response Electrochemical Biosensor for Detecting THC In Saliva that she and her team of researchers developed over the last five years. We talked about the technology, as well as the broad range of applications and benefits of THC detection that often get overlooked.

cannabis impairment detection, thc detection

“Quick and Dirty” THC Detection

Regardless of the purpose of the test, designing a rapid response field test starts with deciding what bodily fluid to go after. Naturally, the sample needs to be easily obtained, and the test needs to be easy to perform, efficient, and inexpensive, as well as accurate. Blood tests, although highly accurate, are complex and generally require a medical professional to assist.

On the other hand, breath tests are easily performed in the field but have a high degree of inconsistency. During our interview Dr. Prasad said, “The challenge with breath is that the breath matrix is variable and volatile, many things interfere, causing the level of signal you get to drift up and down.”

“Saliva is the other option,” she continued, “Of course, depending on what you eat, there are changes to the saliva construct itself, but the molecule still exists there.” Comparing the test to the concept of a strep throat test in a doctor’s office, Dr. Prasad explained the process needed to be “easy and dirty” to do. This ideology became the core of the engineering behind their design.

Three-Part Simple Design for Ease

“The sensor itself,” Dr. Prasad explained, “looks like a swab and is used to swab the mouth.” With only ten microliters of saliva, an electrode embedded inside the swab, which has been treated with receptors that bind with the metabolite, measures the level of THC.

The swab is then loaded into a reader, much like plugging in a flash drive. “The electronics in the reader trigger and run an algorithm to look for a particular molecule with a specificity index based on AI and machine learning,” Dr. Prasad elaborated. Then, like “dialing in a radio station,” the device identifies the molecules, locks it in place, and measures the quantity.

Finally, with a simple Bluetooth connection, the reader reports the concentration of the metabolite to any smart device such as a cell phone or tablet.

“The disposable swab is dirt cheap, only a few cents, and the reader is also very inexpensive, under $100,” Dr. Prasad revealed.

Broad Range of Applications

Although Dr. Prasad understands the interest from the law enforcement perspective, she admitted during our interview that wasn’t her overall goal. While public safety is undoubtedly a priority, several other use cases exist for Dr. Prasad’s technology.

  • Medical Use – For medical marijuana clinicians, this device could help them work with their patients to determine how well each individual metabolizes various products and help them hone in on effective therapeutic results.
  • Consumers – Much like diabetic checks their blood sugar to determine a dose of insulin, an affordable rapid-response test could help consumers determine when it’s appropriate to take another dose.
  • DUI Prevention – Many bars in Minnesota have a box on the wall that for $2.00 dispenses a sterile straw allowing patrons to check their own BAC before they leave. Although less than accurate, the general idea is to give the patron enough information to make an educated decision to call a cab instead. Similarly, in places where social consumption is legal, with THC detection, consumers could avoid costly encounters with the law.
  • Parenting – Although underage consumption is a hot topic, parents ultimately have the right to decide how to raise their children. For those parents who are concerned about their teen’s cannabis use, a device like this could clear the air.
  • Workplace Testing – Alcohol is legal; however, drinking on the job may be dangerous in some cases. Likewise, the recreational use of cannabis will always be prohibited in certain careers. A rapid response reader such as this would be beneficial in workplace accidents.

Ready for Production

The technology is undoubtedly new, but Dr. Prasad says, “It is beyond early-stage development, there is some level of technical maturity.” Then, she continued, “We’ve actually looked at real human saliva, and we have done the validation, measuring it across an analytical standard, and we have demonstrated technology readiness and technological feasibility.”

With an opportunity to address such a broad set of needs in a simple platform, Dr. Prasad believes in the value of the biosensor. “We are almost five years into development, and in that time, we’ve made scientific improvements on various aspects of the technology to make sure we can capture what we say it can.”

For more information about the rapid response THC detection device, or to discuss the possibility of a public-private partnership with Dr. Prasad and the University of Texas contact