City Hospital scientists at the cutting edge drugs scene

Keeping up to date with the drugs people are using on the streets of Britain is all part of the job for scientists at City Hospital. They make it their business to know what the newest trends for recreational drugs are so they are able to develop tests to be able to detect the presence of these substances even in the most miniscule amounts.

The hospital’s Toxicology Department is the only specialist toxicology service in the West Midlands for the detection of drugs of abuse and poisons.

To enable scientists to detect new substances in use now and into the future, Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust has just invested in three new state-of-the-art analysers.

Clinical Scientist at the lab, Dr Petros Kampanis, said: “We are constantly developing new tests to find ways to detect new substances to offer the best service we can. Street drugs in use are changing all the time; we need to know what people are using out there. Not so long back people began abusing the plant fertiliser mephedrone nicknamed ‘meow meow’. As this use emerged it was unregulated, but this is now a class A drug – it is just one of an extensive library of drugs and substances our analysers can detect.”

The laboratory deals with 20,000 samples a year which are usually urine or saliva and carries out 150,000 tests.

The lab is vital for helping doctors reach the correct diagnosis for patients who come into the hospital.

For example if a patient arrives unconscious in A&E a doctor may have a strong suspicion that they may have taken something such as an accidental drugs overdose, attempted suicide, they could have been poisoned or they could even be suffering from a bad reaction to a common prescribed drug.

The lab carries out specialist tests using gas and liquid chromatography which allow doctors to quickly diagnose and treat their patient.

As the Birmingham National Poisons Information Service is also based at City Hospital (one of only four across the UK) the lab also identifies poisons taken by patients on behalf of other hospitals across the UK.

The lab also helps in the monitoring of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes to check whether patients are complying with treatment and not still taking illegal drugs. Dr Kampanis said: “Quite often patients who are still taking drugs may put tea, pineapple juice or water in their samples instead of urine. Others prescribed methadone as part of their heroin rehab programme sell it on the street rather than taking it, spike their urine sample with methadone so it looks like they are still taking it.

The laboratory’s specialist tests also help to aid coroners’ investigations into suspicious or unknown causes of death and the lab also carries out drug and alcohol testing for the public sector testing employees who drive or operate heavy machinery for example.

The toxicology laboratory is part of the Pathology Department which is currently organising tours every Tuesday from 12.45 to lift the lid what goes on behind the scenes by the men and women in white coats.

The tours are open to staff and members of the public but must be booked in advance.

Toxicology tours run until the end of June 2012 and will be followed by Histopathology (July and August) Microbiology (September and October) and Immunology (November and December).