Canberra scientists have identified a new, synthetic, ketamine-like drug from a pill testing facility

Researchers have identified a new recreational drug at Canberra’s pill testing facility.

Australian National University scientists are the first in Australia, and close to the first in the world, to have figured out the molecular structure of the mystery drug.

They spotted the substance at CanTEST, the first fixed pill testing site in Australia.

A client had brought the substance in, saying they thought it was ketamine, but it produced very different effects to what they were expecting.

“When this client presented a substance as ketamine, were able to analyse that and say, well, actually, no, it’s not ketamine – it is something else,” says Professor Mal McLeod, a chemist at the ANU.

“We weren’t able to identify it on site, so we took it back to the lab at ANU here.”

The researchers used a range of different techniques to figure out the structure of the mystery drug – including gas chromatography mass spectrometry, high resolution mass spectrometry, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

“NMR is probably the biggest gun in the army there – it’s really good at determining structure of new compounds,” says McLeod.

“We did get exhaustive experiments to work out exactly what the structure is.”

The whole process to figure out the structure took a few weeks, says McLeod.

The mystery drug’s structure is very similar to ketamine, but with a couple of key parts of the molecule changed.

“They are related structures, analogues, but it is it is a different structure,” says McLeod.

The researchers aren’t sure what the effects of such a structure change are on the user.

“We don’t know much about the activity or safety – so it’s something to be careful of,” says McLeod.

He does think, however, that the mystery drug hasn’t been made from ketamine.

“They’ve started from scratch, if you like – the route is probably quite similar to the synthesis of ketamine, but they’re starting with different building blocks.”

Ziplock bag of powder against a 10cm ruler
The mystery drug. Credit: ANU

Associate Professor David Caldicott, an emergency department consultant and clinical drug expert from ANU, points out that while ketamine is used regularly and safely in clinical and veterinary settings, there’s no data on how this mystery cousin might be different.

“This is why services like CanTEST are so invaluable. It allows us to identify never before seen drugs, as well as common drugs, and provide people who use the service clear guidance on the likely health and other effects of these drugs,” says Caldicott.

In this case, they will be telling clients that they don’t know the effects of the new substance.

“Someone’s come into the service with something they expected to be ketamine, and we’ve been able to provide them information which they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” says McLeod.

“Hopefully they can make sounder decisions based on that.”

It also allows them to monitor new drugs: they’ve spotted this mystery drug a few more times since its first detection.

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