The Laboratory of Scientific Police (LPC) of the Judiciary Police (PJ) detected a new synthetic drug – N-desethyl-isotonitazene – in a seizure of thousands of fake oxycodone tablets. The identification of the synthetic drug was carried out within the cooperation protocol established between LPC-PJ and Ciências ULisboa which aims the analysis of new psychoactive substances (NPS). 

According to PJ, this newly identified substance belongs to the nitazenes family, an emerging class of NPS in Europe.  Its consumption induces feelings of euphoria followed by drowsiness, and eventually causes respiratory system suppression, which is the main cause of death by overdose.

Structure of the new synthetic drug N-desethyl-isotonitazene

The team lead by Helena Gaspar (group leader of the Molecular Biodiscovery and Functional Bioanalysis Lab and Coordinator of the BioISI Mass Spec Facility at Ciências ULisboa) in collaboration with Alexandra Antunes (from the Centro de Química Estrutural at  Instituto Superior Técnico), after a preliminary dentification analysis performed by the LPC-PJ, conducted the isolation, purification, and structural characterization of the substance by Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy. Mass Spectrometry and LPC-PJ analysis allowed the confirmation of the structure established by NMR.

In Helena Gaspar’s opinion, the identification of NPS and, in particular of this new synthetic drug (N-desethyl-isotonitazene), is of vital importance and has an undeniable social impact since “Monitoring the substances circulating on the market and identifying them makes it possible to study their characteristics and the risks they pose to public health, thus enabling competent authorities how to mitigate them.”

Within the framework of the cooperation protocol between the LPC-PJ and Ciências ULisboa, established in 2014, Helena Gaspar leads a NPS research line dedicated to solving the challenges posed by the rapid proliferation of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in recreational drug markets. Besides the development of analytical methodology for an accurate identification of NPS (mainly by NMR Spectroscopy and Mass Spectrometry), her research lab at BioISI synthesise NPS, whose appearance on recreational drugs is expected to be eminent.  Helena’s lab is also involved in the evaluation of toxicity of recent emerging NPS, determining their metabolic profiling and identifying the key metabolites responsible for their toxicity while establishing its mechanism of action.

The fruitfulness of this protocol with the Judiciary Police is evidenced by the identification of more than 100 NPS for the resolution of Judicial Cases, having provided the LPC-PJ with around 60 standards of NPS synthesized or purified from seized material, the publication of 12 scientific papers and the supervision of about 20 Master’s and 14 Bachelor’s students, mostly from both the BSc. and MSc. in Chemistry at Ciências ULisboa. Among these students Raquel Ferro, Sara Júlio and Cláudio Leal were admitted, last year, to the Portuguese Scientific Police as experts (see more here).

Helena Gaspar 

Get to know about this issue at Ciências ULisboa website.

Discover the research developed within the protocol by reading the following publications:

[2023] Metabolic stability and metabolite profiling of emerging synthetic cathinones

[2023] Synthesis of emerging cathinones and validation of a SPE GC–MS method for their simultaneous quantification in blood

[2022] Simple Analytical Strategy for Screening Three Synthetic Cathinones (α-PVT, α-PVP, and MDPV) in Oral Fluids

[2021] Determination of Selected Cathinones in Blood by Solid-Phase Extraction and GC–MS

 [2021] Metabolic Profile of Four Selected Cathinones in Microsome Incubations: Identification of Phase I and II Metabolites by Liquid Chromatography High Resolution Mass Spectrometry

[2020] Adverse outcome pathways induced by 3,4-dimethylmethcathinone and 4-methylmethcathinone in differentiated human SH-SY5Y neuronal cells

[2020] Synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018, JWH-122, UR-144 and the phytocannabinoid THC activate apoptosis in placental cells

[2019] Structure-cytotoxicity relationship profile of 13 synthetic cathinones in differentiated human SH-SY5Y neuronal cells

[2018] Proactive response to tackle the threat of emerging drugs: Synthesis and toxicity evaluation of new cathinones

[2015] Determination of mitragynine in urine matrices by bar adsorptive microextraction and HPLC analysis

[2015] 4F-PBP (4′-fluoro-α-pyrrolidinobutyrophenone), a new substance of abuse: Structural characterization and purity NMR profiling

[2015] Raising awareness of new psychoactive substances: chemical analysis and in vitro toxicity screening of ‘legal high’ packages containing synthetic cathinones