Press Release

Breaking Research in AACC’s Clinical Chemistry Journal Could Help to Hold Back the Tide of Designer Drugs

WASHINGTON – The Mass Spectrometry issue of Clinical Chemistry, the journal of AACC, features pioneering research that could enable screening for two synthetic cannabinoids that are on the rise. This study could also help to reduce the popularity of designer drugs overall by making it easier to develop tests for the myriad of new, dangerous substances that emerge every year.

Experts have likened keeping up with designer drugs to a game of whack-a-mole—each time a designer drug is identified and outlawed, chemists simply create a new one. From 2009 to 2012 alone, the number of these substances rose from 166 to 251 in the member states of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The result is that forensic and clinical toxicology labs have become overwhelmed trying to develop methods to detect these unknown drugs. Certain types of designer drugs such as synthetic cannabinoids are particularly difficult to test for because they don’t show up in measurable amounts in urine, the sample type most widely used for drug screening. This is one of the main reasons why users turn to designer drugs, despite the risk of severe consequences such as kidney damage, psychosis, or even death.

For the first time, a team of researchers led by Marilyn A. Huestis, PhD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has identified metabolites of two new synthetic cannabinoids that could potentially be detected by a urine drug test. The substances they investigated, known as THJ-018 and THJ-2201, were initially found in 2014 and drug-user forums suggest their abuse is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Though synthetic cannabinoids don’t appear in urine, they are broken down by the liver and the body typically excretes the byproducts of liver breakdown, known as metabolites, through urine. Identifying these metabolites presents a challenge, however, since it can be difficult to find positive cases of new designer drugs to study. To get around this problem with THJ-018 and THJ-2201, Huestis’s group incubated human liver cells known as hepatocytes in solutions of each of these drugs. Using a relatively new lab technique known as high-resolution mass spectrometry (HR-MS), the researchers then identified the major metabolites produced by the liver cells that are unique to each drug and could serve as targets for a test.

“These data empower clinical laboratories to target markers of [new psychoactive substance (NPS)] intake,” said Huestis. “Our analysis strategy, HR-MS data acquisition, and processing and hepatocyte incubation, is also applicable to further studies of newly emerging NPSs.”

In an editorial in the same issue of Clinical Chemistry, Svante Vikingsson and Henrik Gréen, PhD, of Sweden’s Linköping University comment further on the significance of these findings. They note that, because designer drugs spread quickly around the globe, this research on THJ-018 and THJ-2201 is very timely. Even more important, they believe, is the fact that the method developed by Huestis’s group could be used to develop urine tests for the future designer drugs that will inevitably crop up.

“To properly assess the metabolism of a synthetic cannabinoid, different approaches need to be combined and the results must be interpreted carefully,” wrote Vikingsson and Gréen. “The work of [Huestis’s team] shows how this process can be carried out successfully and sets the standard for future studies.”

Listen to a podcast with Dr. Huestis.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @Clin_Chem_AACC.


About AACC

Dedicated to achieving better health through laboratory medicine, AACC brings together more than 50,000 clinical laboratory professionals, physicians, research scientists, and business leaders from around the world focused on clinical chemistry, molecular diagnostics, mass spectrometry, translational medicine, lab management, and other areas of progressing laboratory science. Since 1948, AACC has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing programs that advance scientific collaboration, knowledge, expertise, and innovation. For more information, visit

Clinical Chemistry is the leading international journal of clinical laboratory science, providing 2,000 pages per year of peer-reviewed papers that advance the science of the field. With an impact factor of 7.9, Clinical Chemistry covers everything from molecular diagnostics to laboratory management.



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Christine DeLong
Association for Diagnostics & Laboratory Medicine
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Molly Polen
Association for Diagnostics & Laboratory Medicine
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