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Professor, Students Seek Sensor to Detect "Date Rape" Drug

Andrea Holmes was a graduate student at New York University when a brochure in the student health center caught her attention.

It warned students - particularly young women - about the use and dangers of flunitrazepam (also known as "roofies"), the illegal "date rape" drug with powerful sedative properties.

As I read, I kept thinking ‘This is what research should be, to figure out ways that crimes like this could be prevented,'" said Holmes, who earned a Ph.D. at NYU before becoming an assistant professor of chemistry at Doane College.

Aided by two grants and a student team, Holmes has completed a year of research on the subject, working to create a sensor and personal testing kit - similar to a pH test strip - that one could carry to screen drinks.

She began with "literature digging" to see what research existed. The work of Columbia University Professor Milan Stojanovic - who designed a sensor for cocaine - was particularly valuable, she said. The two professors continue to discuss data and research findings and exchange ideas.

Holmes then designed an experiment that uses the DNA aptamers and visibles dyes to detect the presence of the drug. The first step was to test the system in water solution in the laboratory. It worked, changing from blue to colorless after the addition of the drug. After its success, Holmes applied the sensor to paper and silica strips with promising, but less conclusive, results. Holmes continues to refine the results to make the sensor more sensitive on paper and silica surfaces. 

Holmes hopes someday the sensor could help prevent sexual assaults and aid in criminal investigation and testing. Flunitrazepam's effects include amnesia; individuals are unable to remember events while under the influence of the drug. The drug's effect can generally last four to six hours, with some residual effects persisting up to 12 hours or more. The residual amounts of the drug are difficult to detect, and are undetectable by the time some victims report the incident, Holmes said.

One of Holmes' goals as a professor is to conduct research that's "relevant to students, something they can be passionate about."

The flunitrazepam research drew applications from 25 potential student researchers at Doane. Juniors Liz Higgins of Lincoln and Kari Thompson of Milburn were selected. A grant from Nebraska EPSCoR/IDEA (experimental program to stimulate competitive research-National Science Foundation), paid for their salaries and supplies.  

A Project Seed Grant from the American Chemical Society (ACS), along with a matching grant from the ACS Nebraska section, sponsored Crete High School senior Ana Castaneda's eight weeks of research on the project. Project Seed is intended to provide students the opportunity to do meaningful research -particularly students from ethnic groups underrepresented in science. Part two of the grant will sponsor eight additional weeks of research by Castaneda in the summer of 2007.  

Holmes plans to apply for a continuation of the NSF-EPSCOR grant and continue research during the spring 2007 semester and summer.  She also has applied for competitive funding through the NSF's CCLI grant program to add more research and instructional instruments to the department's instrument center. 

In the meantime, she is busy writing and presenting her findings. The project created a "scientific buzz" at local and state-level research expos, she said. In late July, she will present her findings at the Rudjer Boskovic Institute Department of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Zagreb, Croatia.