By STACY FERNANDEZ The Dallas Morning News
DENTON, Texas (AP) – A University of North Texas professor and one of his graduate students have spent the last nine years making meth, fentanyl and PCP in a lab.
The Dallas Morning News reports it’s all legal – the feds signed off on it – and they’ve used the drugs to test a new device they’re developing: a breath analyzer that can identify marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs in people’s systems.
Guido Verbeck, a chemistry professor, created the device with the help of grad student Tom Kiselak. The device isn’t yet ready for the market. But Frisco-based InspectIR has been working with the researchers and sees law enforcement and medical uses for the device.
“The demand is going to be off the charts,” said John Redmond, one of the founders of InspectIR. The device they are working on is bulkier than a traditional alcohol Breathalyzer. The size is because a mass spectrometer, a device that analyzes the chemicals, is contained within the device.
A mass spectrometer usually remains stationary and is about the size of two home printers stacked on top of each other. Verbeck has managed to make a smaller spectrometer that can fit into the palm of a person’s hand.
The device is designed so that when a person breathes into it, a carbon mesh captures the organic chemistry, eliminates the air and water from the breath, and sends the rest to the mass spectrometer. Within 15 seconds, the screen lights up with the results.
Verbeck has tested the gadget with the drugs he’s made and a machine that can imitate human breath. Once they work out the kinks, the duo will need to win approvals and go through clinical trials with humans. Verbeck expects to be finished with the process by the end of the year.
If they’re successful, InspectIR can take the gizmo to market. Verbeck estimates the commercial version of the device will cost between $20,000 and $40,000. Over time, he expects the price to fall to about $10,000 as production becomes more efficient.
Verbeck bears a resemblance to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White character from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” in which a high school chemistry teacher – chasing fast money – begins making meth with a former student.
Verbeck embraces the look and once dressed up as White for a lecture. But Verbeck says he and Kiselak’s aims are more noble than just making money. He said he primarily wanted to help solve the opioid crisis that has hit communities across the country.
He said if someone on opioids or other drugs was unresponsive and needed medical treatment, they could breathe into the device so doctors could diagnose them quickly and give them appropriate treatment.
Public safety uses could be in the offing as well. In Texas, it’s illegal to drive under the influence of drugs. While an officer can perform a field sobriety test, they have no means to confirm the person is impaired because of drugs other than alcohol. They would have to order a blood or urine sample to verify it.
And as more states legalize marijuana, a portable test can help officers identify when people are driving with more THC in their system than legal limits allow, Verbeck said.
Erwin Ballarta, executive director of the Texas Police Association, said Verbeck’s device would be a useful tool for law enforcement since it’s less invasive than a blood or urine test and can produce results in the field. And, Ballarta said, “if it saves one life, it’s worth” the hefty price tag.
Verbeck said corporations could also use his device to test employees who handle heavy machinery, fly planes or drive buses and other vehicles.
Verbeck, who recently developed and put a “drug-sniffing” car on the market, has worked on his breath-test device for the last six months. The prototype is almost complete. But he still has to figure out the part of the device into which people will blow.
Verbeck said the mass spectrometer is stable but “how you collect breath is where there could be a field of error.”
While the breathalyzer can currently be used as tool against the current opioid crisis, it will also be useful in assessing future epidemics, Verbeck said.
“Accountability starts with testing,” Verbeck said about his device.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
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