Automated Direct Sample Analysis/Time of Flight (DSA/TOF) for Nontargeted Drug Screening

Illicit drug use has become a serious issue in the U.S. and spans different age groups, geographies, and socioeconomic classes. In 2011, more than 22.5 million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 were illicit drug users (8.7% of the total population), with 8400 initiates per day.1 These drugs of abuse include substances for recreational and performance-enhancing use and cover a wide range of compound classes, including hallucinogens, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs such as pain relievers and tranquilizers, and human growth hormones.

Drug testing is performed for a number of reasons, including preemployment screening, compliance for drug rehabilitation programs, participation in professional and amateur sports, etc. To detect or exclude the presence of abused and/or illegal drugs, accurate screening methods and confirmation are required.

Screening methods for drugs of abuse currently require long chromatographic methods and sample preparation or enzyme multiplied immunoassay techniques (EMITs) with confirmation via GC/MS or LC/MS/MS. These methods can be time-consuming and complicated, because the variety of sample types including urine and blood entail lengthy sample preparation methods. GC/MS or LC/MS/MS analysis adds more time to the analysis, from 5–30 min to analyze a single sample. The majority of urine screening methods cover only some of the metabolites, since there are limited reference standards available, making it difficult to keep up with the constantly changing illicit drug scene. For example, bath salt components (cathinones) are altered chemically by street chemists to avoid detection by traditional methodologies.

Due to the variety of illicit and abused drugs available and the high incidence of drug abuse, it is vital that labs have an approach that is fast, yet generic in nature and is not targeted, to enable detection of new and unknown compounds. Rapid sample analysis is key, since drug seizures and patient screening may result in thousands of samples.

The AxION® Direct Sample Analysis™ (DSA™) system from PerkinElmer (Waltham, MA; is an ideal solution for the rapid screening of various classes of street seized, illicit designer drugs, drugs of abuse, and abused human growth hormones in a variety of solids and liquids as well as metabolites in the urine of possible illicit drug offenders. This unique system does not require lengthy chromatography, and little or no sample preparation or method development is needed. This results in hours of time saved and eliminates the use and disposal of costly reagents and consumables.

In our study, the AxION DSA/TOF was used to screen and confirm drugs of abuse in 369 unknown samples. Fifty-three unique substances were detected, with each sample taking less than 25 sec to analyze. Substance identification was performed by reverse automatic database searching against all schedule 1–5 drugs, totaling more than 1200 compounds of illicit and commonly abused drugs and pharmaceuticals. Total time of this analysis was 154 min, or approximately 2.5 hr.


  1. Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings;

Sean Daugherty is PerkinElmer MS Technology Manager, Europe, Seer Green, U.K.; e-mail: Joanne Mather is PerkinElmer North American Mass Spectrometry Commercialization Leader, Waltham, MA; e-mail: