A Groundbreaking New Saliva Test Could Instantly Detect "Date Rape" Drug GHB

A Groundbreaking New Saliva Test Could Instantly Detect "Date Rape" Drug GHB

A recent scientific breakthrough could be a huge help to victims of drug-facilitated sexual assault.

Scientists from the British Loughborough University and Spain's University of Cordoba have shown that a simple saliva test could be used to detect the date rape drug GHB, as well as various types of alcohol, in a patient's system. 

To conduct their study, published in the Journal of Breath Research, the researchers "spiked" healthy saliva samples with methanol, ethanol, ethylene glycol, 1,3-propanediol and GHB. Then they successfully used techniques called thermal desorption, gas chromatography and differential mobility spectrometry to isolate and detect the potentially harmful substances.

Using that process, the researchers hope to eventually develop a GHB test that's as quick and easy as spitting in a cup. According to the Engineer, researcher Paul Thomas intends for the test to be "as simple as taking temperature with a thermometer that detects when patients are more than just drunk."

What is GHB? GHB is one of the three most common date rape drugs, along with rohypnol and ketamine, according to the Office on Women's Health. Administered in the form of a clear odorless liquid, a white powder or a pill — and often slipped into victims' drinks — GHB can render a person dizzy, drowsy, unconscious or unable to remember what's happening.

When people report date rapes to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, GHB "is the most common one we hear," Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, told Mic

"Sometimes, they say that their drink was spiked with it and they ingested it without knowing it," Berkowitz said. "Other times, they were voluntarily taking drugs, but someone saw them in a condition in which they were not able to consent, took advantage of that and committed a sexual assault."

Testing for GHB poisoning isn't always easy. There's no quick, easy way to test patients for alcohol and date rape drugs, all in one go.

A big problem? Plenty of victims don't realize they've been drugged. GHB intoxication is sometimes mistaken for alcohol abuse or masked by drunkenness in the moment, the researchers wrote.

"Depending on what drug was used, and the dosage of it, some of the symptoms can be similar to alcohol intoxication," Berkowitz told Mic. "As a result of that, a lot of people don't think to get tested for it, and hospitals don't always offer [testing] unless the victim has expressed that they think they were drugged."

Even if patients are tested for GHB, the results often take a long time to process. Tests for date rape drugs typically "have to get sent out to an external lab, and can take days or weeks to come back," Berkowitz said. 

The ability to procure immediate test results could potentially be life-saving.

That time lag is a big problem. "The essence of diagnosis is speed," the researchers wrote, "and even in well-resourced healthcare settings, the collection of blood samples for remote analysis may introduce delays that prevent effective treatment."

Rapid testing is especially important in the case of GHB, which leaves the body rather quickly — it's in the blood for just four hours and in the urine for 12, Trinka Porrata, president of the GHB Project, told Mic. If a person is rushed to the emergency room experiencing severe health consequences of GHB, the ability to procure immediate test results could potentially be lifesaving.

If a simple analysis of saliva could do the trick, "that test would be awesome," Porrata told Mic via email. 

"Being able to speed up that process, and, if something is found, being able to mobilize law enforcement more quickly, sounds like it definitely would be good for victims," Berkowitz told Mic.

If the researchers do end up developing and disseminating a test that's as easy as taking a patient's temperature, it'll take some time. 

"In concept," Berkowitz said, "I think it sounds like it would be a big improvement."