Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) for the qualitative analysis of synthetic piperazines
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Designer drugs are some of the most commonly abused substances in the world. They are synthesized through slight chemical modifications of existing substances, evading the law while maintaining the desired effects of the pharmaceutical or illicit substance. These drugs are often marketed as “herbal” or “natural,” but are fully synthetic. Due to their constant, rapid emergence, there is a need for a rapid method of identification, both in the field as well as in the laboratory. One group of these designer drugs are synthetic piperazines. Named for the piperazine ring found in their chemical structures, synthetic piperazines are central nervous system stimulants that have the reputation of mimicking the psychoactive effects of the illicit compounds amphetamine and 3, 4-methylenedioxymethampetamine (MDMA). Over the past 10 years, synthetic piperazine cases submitted to forensic laboratories in the United States have greatly increased, including a 30-fold increase between 2007 and 2009 alone. Surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) was investigated as a method for the rapid qualitative analysis of synthetic piperazines. SERS is a type of vibrational spectroscopy, which utilizes the interaction of light and matter to elucidate details of the chemical structure of a molecule. SERS combines laser spectroscopy with the optical properties of metallic nanostructures, resulting in strongly enhanced signals from the Raman scattering of light. Each chemical structure will give a unique SERS spectrum and this, coupled with the minimal-to-no sample preparation and the portability of a SERS instrument, makes SERS a strong candidate for the identification of not only synthetic piperazines, but all designer drugs. To evaluate the use of SERS for the qualitative analysis of synthetic piperazines, eight synthetic piperazines were adsorbed onto a SERS substrate. The interaction with the gold nanoparticles enhanced the Raman scattering for all eight of the synthetic piperazines and SERS spectra were obtained. All eight drugs were found to give a robust and reproducible signal, requiring a fewer number of scans, less laser power, and less time for analysis compared with traditional Raman spectroscopy. When compared with traditional Raman spectra, the synthetic piperazines demonstrated sensitivity enhancement factors of up to 10^8 using SERS. A partial least squares-discriminant analysis (PLS-DA) statistical model was built and used to evaluate the analytical sensitivity and specificity of the SERS method. The PLS-DA model helped determine a limit of detection of 10 μg/mL of BZP. All eight synthetic piperazines could be identified by the statistical model below an error rate of 20% when compared to each other- a strong indication of a method with high specificity.Through this research, it has been demonstrated that SERS can be applied efficiently as a qualitative technique for the analysis of synthetic piperazines.