The high school students made their own sensors and collected data shown in a graph in the scientific article they co-authored describing the work. In the article, published in the Feb. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the authors state, "Cocaine serves as an ideal and representative target for testing new analytical techniques due to pressing needs for its rapid detection in law enforcement and clinical settings." The sensor can be housed in supporting electronics that are the size of a small hand-held device.
Co-author and Nobel laureate Alan Heeger said, "We have developed a method of detecting small molecules and proteins in a way that is not specific to cocaine a whole class of biosensors can be based on this concept. It can be applied to the prevention of bioterrorism. It is beautiful work; the sensor is fully portable." Heeger is a professor of physics and of materials and is affiliated with the Center for Polymers and Organic Solids at UCSB. He won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2000.
"For me the most exciting thing is that this is a generic, inexpensive way of detecting a range of interesting targets," said Kevin Plaxco, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. "Cocaine is just the tip of the iceberg."
Currently detecting cocaine (and other illegal and legal drugs) in bodily fluids must be done by a laboratory with large and expensive equipment. The process takes from hours to days to get a result.