UniSA wins Thyne Reid Foundation Grant to expand national wastewater drug screening program

Jason White

Professor Jason White, Professor of Pharmacology, Head of School: Pharmacy and Medical Sciences

Illegal substance abuse is continually harming individuals and communities globally. Professor Jason White, of the University of South Australia’s School for Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, is leading a novel research project determining the prevalence and frequency of psychoactive substances in wastewater across Australia – through support from the Thyne Reid Foundation.

This research will have the ability to determine which novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are being consumed in Australian communities and will become the first of its kind in the world.

Substance abusers excrete drug residues as part of normal bodily functions. These chemical residues enter the sewer system, where wastewater ‘auto-samplers’ can collect a portion of the daily inflow to be screened in a laboratory.

“This is our opportunity to begin to capture the origin of psychoactive substances in Australia before they get a chance to spread,’ says Prof White.

Until recently, illicit drugs have primarily originated from plants or pharmaceuticals substances. Within the last decade, chemical substances that have not been used as pharmaceuticals or evaluated in any way for their safety, have become more prevalent amongst substance abusers. These have become known as NPS.

While the current system is ideal for showing consumption differences, it relies on the availability of reference standards to determine the amount of substances in wastewater at a particular time. This project will screen for a wider range of compounds simultaneously, with a focus on sampling for known and emerging NPS.

“The intention of the project is to screen a large number of these substances simultaneously in wastewater, providing us with a comprehensive method for picking up new and emerging substances in Australia,” says Prof White.

“Although the current system is ideal for showing substances for which we have reference standards, the very nature of NPS means that they are constantly changing, so our methods need to change with it.”

A Thyne Reid Foundation spokesperson said that they are proud to be supporting Prof White and his team through the project, hoping the results will help to curb the growing substance abuse crisis.

“We’re really excited to provide funding for this imperative project,” says one of the Trustees of the Thyne Reid Foundation.

“It is our hope that with our contribution, Professor White and his team will have a serious shot at improving the national wastewater drug screening program, with Australia being placed at the forefront of reducing substance abuse.”

By including one of UniSA’s postdoctoral researchers with experience in the field, the in-house expertise will ensure the project can be carried out much faster.