Novel drug sensor platform - bringing new technology closer to market

Lead Research Organisation: City, University of London
Department Name: Sch of Engineering and Mathematical Sci


In the year 2010 - 2011 the UK Border Agency (UKBA) made over 1,200 individual seizures of Class-A drugs totalling 3,000kg. In August of this year alone a record-setting 1.2 tons of cocaine was seized in one drug bust aboard a pleasure boat - an unusually high amount for one bust but a level of success the UKBA wants to maintain.

There is a range of drug detection equipment on the market today, but each has its strengths and limitations, including sniffer dogs, which are often considered one of the most efficient and highly sensitive means for drug detection. The limitations of existing technologies include high levels of false alarms, low levels of sensitivity compared to sniffer dogs and high cost using disposable consumables. Specifically with regards to dogs, high upkeep cost and a dog's nature of getting tired or confused, and inability to act as evidence in a court of law, are all big issues.

The team at City is proposing to develop a prototype real-time multi-drug sensing detection system to address the above challenge and this builds upon the success of the initial EPSRC project, where a novel, highly sensitive and selective optical fibre-based portable cocaine sensor, using the molecularly imprinting polymer (MIP) technique coupled with fluorescence signalling, has been successfully developed and evaluated. The Home Office CAST members were instrumental in identifying the need as an end-user for this new sensor technology exploitation and its associated new drug sensor development. They, together with advisors from Smiths Detection, are shaping the main deliverables of this proposal to ensure that it results in a commercially robust product.

Initially the device will be developed to detect drugs concealed in hard-to-reach areas in vehicles or containers crossing borders, where currently sniffer dogs are frequently used to locate the illegal substance. However, the underlying technology is capable of meeting a much wider range of applications.

This follow-on funding is vital for the team to develop the technology to a stage that it can be licensed to an existing manufacturer, currently supplying drug detection devices to the Border Security Agencies around the world.

City's technology transfer team will be an integral part of this project, carrying out simultaneous market validation exercises and feeding back to the academic team on a continual basis. This intelligence will advise the product development process. The team will also work with the in-house Incubator to establish whether an additional or alternative route to market could involve creating a spin-out company capable of attracting seed investment.

Planned Impact

The major beneficiaries of the project are as follows with details of how they will benefit:
1) Addressing the misery that drug abuse brings to our society. There are approximately 320,000 heroin and/or crack cocaine users in England of which around 170,000 are in treatment in any one year. Offenders who use heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine are estimated to commit between a third and a half of all acquisitive crime. A significant impact on the lives of those caught up in drug abuse could come from the success of better drug detection. This will help to deter drug traffickers from importing drugs to the UK, consequently restricting drug supply and minimising the negative impact of misuse on individuals, families, communities and society.
2) The public sector and taxpayers. Drugs cost the UK economy alone £15.4 billion each year and around 8% of all working age benefit claimants in England are dependent on drugs or alcohol, and generate benefit expenditure costs of approximately £1.6 billion per year. The success of this project will not just provide the public sector and stakeholders with more effective drug detection tools, but also create significant savings to our economy as a result of the reduction of illicit and other harmful drug use.
3) The commercial private sector. Clear impact will be seen to UK industry as new products will be delivered to the market, and new partnerships created, both during the project period and subsequently. This will be followed up by commercial development through appropriate licence arrangements with City as the patent owners, with considerable export potential to address a world-wide problem.
4) The UK Institution involved. City will benefit both from the enhancement of its current research portfolio and from ownership of exploitable Intellectual Property arising from the patent protection that will be taken out for the new technologies, thereby creating further financial benefits to the University.
5) The investigators. An important positive impact will be from the experience gained in the coordination and management of this type of commercially-driven research by working closely with industrial partners and University TTO, and gaining wider experience of industrial practice as a result.
6) The early career PDRAs and PhD students involved. The project will act as a platform for the education of early-career researchers (and potentially a collaborating research student from the group). They will gain significant experience by working with colleagues across different sectors and learn from the process by being intimately involved in a project that really matters to society.
Description The key contribution of this project is the establishment of a novel drug sensor platform which enables the creation of a suite of new drug sensors to meet increasing needs from the industry and from the security sector. Based on this novel sensor design concept, more chemical sensors have been designed and developed for the other industrial sectors, e.g. used by the water industry for sewer condition monitoring.
Exploitation Route Either through the publications or the patents filed during the project period. Some of the chemcial sensor prototypes have been implemented in the fields.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Construction,Environment,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Security and Diplomacy

Description The findings have both been patented before being published and one patent was granted in 2019. New funding applications have been filed to seek new support for the refinement of the sensor design, making it a step closer to the commercial market. Underpinned by the drug sensor design concept, more chemical sensors have been designed and developed for wider industrial applications, for example, for the water industry to monitor sewer conditions. Recently the partnership formed between City and Smiths Detection has been successful in their joint PhD studentship application under the joint initiative between the Department of Transport and the Home Office for future aviation security solutions.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Centre of Excellence
Amount $38,000,000 (AUD)
Organisation Australian Research Council 
Sector Public
Country Australia
Start 10/2014 
End 10/2021
Description EU FP7 programme
Amount € 477,058 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 12/2013 
End 12/2016
Description Future Aviation Security Solutions Industrial PhD Partnerships (FASS IPP)
Amount £129,936 (GBP)
Organisation Government of the UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2020 
End 09/2024
Description National science foundation
Amount ¥1,000,000 (CNY)
Organisation National Natural Science Foundation of China 
Sector Public
Country China
Start 05/2014 
End 05/2018
Description Optical fibre sensors for wastewater treatment plant condition monitoring in Australia
Amount £22,500 (GBP)
Organisation Sydney Water 
Sector Public
Country Australia
Start 06/2018 
End 05/2019
Description industry-academia partnership
Amount £99,200 (GBP)
Funding ID UK-CIAPP\82 
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 04/2019
Description Home Office CAST 
Organisation Home Office
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Design of a novel drug sensor platform using the molecular imprinting polymer based technique to facilitate the creation of a variety of new drug sensors, meeting the increasing needs from the security sector and from the industry.
Collaborator Contribution Provision of detailed information and data, attendance at the project steering committee meetings; working with City University colleagues to conduct tests and offering the support in terms of the access to the laboratories at CAST and to drugs for which City University does not have a licences.
Impact Joint publications and joint proposals submitted
Start Year 2009
Description Smiths Detection 
Organisation Smiths-Detection
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Development of a novel drug sensor platform using the molecular imprinting polymer-based technique, which enables the creation of a suite of novel drug sensors in order to meet the increasing needs from the security sector and from the industry. New joint application for explosive detection was submitted in early 2020 and was subsequently awarded in 2020 - this is a four-year PhD studentship under the theme of Future Aviation Security Solutions Industrial PhD Partnerships (FASS IPP)
Collaborator Contribution providing City University with relevant commercial & market information and testing requirements based on their extensive experience of field trials and 'real world' testing; offering laboratory facilities available at the Smiths side in Watford; attending project progress meetings, providing test input and advice on the designed sensors In the new project, they will supervise the PhD student jointly by providing site training courses and helping the student undertaking experiments on site and accessing to some key equipment in their laboratory
Impact Joint publications and submission of joint proposals to RCUK for further funding
Start Year 2012
Description Sydney Water, Australia 
Organisation Sydney Water
Country Australia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Partnership has been established between City and Sydney Water in Australia via several joint research programmes, including the one that was directly funded by Sydney Water to City, University of London. The projects have been focused on the development of a suite of chemical sensors which can be used in the harsh sewer environment, both for condition monitoring and for better water treatment.
Collaborator Contribution Partners have been directly involved in the sensor development either as a project funder or an industrial collaborator.
Impact Outputs include (I) Innovation Award Winner 2017 by Australian Water Association, in collaboration with Sydney Water to achieve better management of sewers - exploiting photonics sensors research through its introduction to the Water Industry; (ii) The sensor system will be installed in sewers in Australia for long term monitoring from April 2018 onwards; It is multi-disciplinary research, involving chemistry, engineering and physics.
Start Year 2017
Description international partnership 
Organisation Australian Research Council
Department Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics
Country Australia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution International partnership with Australian Centre of Excellence via staff/student exchanges and joint funding applications
Collaborator Contribution Partnership with overseas Centres of Excellence to promote staff/student exchanges, joint funding applications and knowledge transfer.
Impact Two PhD students working on joint research programmes It is disciplinary: involving life sciences, biology, chemistry and engineering
Start Year 2014
Description smart contact lenses 
Organisation Tongji University Hospital
Country China 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Development of smart contact lenses by integration of optical fibre sensors into contact lenses for monitoring eye pressure for early detection of glaucoma. The principal aim of this project is to develop a novel technological solution to address an important challenge recognized by the World Health Organization as the second leading cause of blindness globally: glaucoma.
Collaborator Contribution The hospital has provided unique clinical environment for extensive testing of contact lenses through in vitro and in vivo analysis of IOP in animal eyes, when fitted with smart contact lenses and subjected to controlled changes in IOP
Impact Funding support from National Natural Science Foundation in China and Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK It is multi-disciplinary: involving visual sciences, engineering, physics and chemistry
Start Year 2015
Title Fibre-optic sensor 
Description An optic fibre sensor comprising an optic fibre (9) and a molecularly imprinted polymer (MIP) receptor (10) formed directly on said fibre (9), wherein: said polymer includes a fluorophore that fluoresces when exposed to a source of light, said MIP is selective for a particular drug of interest, and said fluorescence changes when said MIP is exposed to said drug of interest. 
IP Reference GB2502475 
Protection Patent granted
Year Protection Granted 2013
Licensed No
Impact This optical fibre cocaine sensor design has opened up a new stream of sensor design and fabrication for other industrial applications, such as those designed and manufactured at City for sewer condition monitoring and for soil contamination inspections.
Title SPR drug sensor 
Description Design of a novel drug sensor, using molecular imprinting polymer-based technique coupled with surface plasmon resonance signalling 
IP Reference GB1114825.1 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2011
Licensed No
Impact This will make an impact on both the health and security sectors by providing on-site information about the specific drugs handled or consumed.