Many students know someone who has been drugged with GHB. Proving it is difficult, as is prevention. Eight TU Delft students are working on a detector for the iGEM.
How safe is that drink? The Delft iGEM team works on a drug detector. (Photo: Michael Discenza via Unsplash)

Many students know someone who has been drugged with GHB. Proving it is difficult, as is prevention. Eight TU Delft students are working on a detector for the iGEM.

Lees in het Nederlands

Imagine: a busy club during a skiing holiday. The light is low, the music is loud and the atmosphere a bit stuffy. Another drink? Well, go on then. Lie in tomorrow. When you wake up in the morning, you know that something is not right. But you don't remember anything. The fog inside your head is impenetrable.

GHB (4-hydroxybutanoic acid) is a notorious date rape drug, including in student circles. You cannot see or taste it, but the effects are enormous. A little of it in your drink and all you notice is that you feel relaxed and peaceful. The drug disappears from your blood after three hours and leaves no trace.

“GHB has a disinhibiting effect,” says the Trimbos Institute, the Dutch drugs expertise centre. This can cause a user to do things that he or she later regrets, such as having sex with someone. A user can also become nauseated or dizzy. In addition, too high a dose can cause memory loss or the victim can lose consciousness.

Detector

Eight members of the TU Delft iGEM team are now working on a detector that can trace the drug. iGEM is an annual worldwide event in which students use synthetic cells or parts thereof to address social or societal problems. In the past, TU Delft teams have worked on bacterial resistance, odour detection and diagnostics.

When this year‘s assignment was to tackle a local and social problem, the TU Delft team members quickly agreed that drugging with GHB ('spiking’) was a relevant topic, says Communications Manager Rebecca Jekel. For their website they chose the slogan ‘SPYKE - Detect to Protect’.

The finals will be at the end of October in Paris. How far have they got? "The working principle has been demonstrated," says Jekel. "We can translate the biochemical reaction, the binding to a GHB-like molecule, into an electrical signal." The only thing is that this now requires a lab table full of equipment. The intention is that the detector is ultimately smaller than a USB stick. If there is one thing engineers can do, it is miniaturisation.

There is not much to say about the sensitivity and specificity of the detector, except that the prototype is being developed using a substance that resembles GHB, but is not GHB. As GHB is registered as a hard drug, you cannot obtain it freely or use it for experiments.

Jekel does not want to reveal many technical details because the team wants to apply for a patent for their invention. They have set up a crowdfunding action to cover the costs of developing a prototype. It has brought in almost half of the required EUR 15,000.