With the help of two high school students on their staff, a UCSB Nobel laureate and an associate professor have developed a portable sensor, made from off-the-shelf electronics, able to detect cocaine – among other drugs.

UCSB associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry Kevin Plaxco, along with Nobel laureate and physics professor Alan Heeger, recently led a team of researchers, including two local high school students, to develop the detector. Law enforcement officers can easily use the portable device in the field, meaning that tests for both legal and illegal drugs can be done more quickly and conveniently than ever before.

The tool may also prove useful in the medical field, as it can be used to immediately monitor the amount and impact of prescription drugs in a patient’s bloodstream – sidestepping waiting periods of several hours to several days for laboratory results. In addition, researchers said the sensor could even help national security.

“We’re currently working with Lawrence Livermore Lab to find anthrax and other bio-terrorism drugs,” Plaxco said.

Although it currently costs $2,000 to make, Plaxco said the detector could eventually cost a few hundred dollars. He said he thinks the tool could save crime investigators and doctors thousands of dollars because samples would not have to be shipped off for tests in significantly larger, more expensive machines.

To detect drugs, Plaxco said, the sensor examines molecules in an individual’s DNA. Each type of drug causes different folds in the molecule. The tool, which must be set to detect a particular drug, shows in real time if the substance is present.

The team used cocaine as a convenient test drug, Plaxco said, but the sensors can be applied very generally.

After working for years on how drugs affect DNA proteins, it was only recently that the team realized the concept could be applied to inventing a sensor. Plaxco said lab researcher Yi Xiao pioneered this specific sensor, which took about six months to develop.

Two high school students, Elaine Doctor and McCall Wood, participated in the development process through a UCSB research mentorship program that partnered some students from high schools in the area with projects on campus. Both students are listed as co-authors of the Feb. 18 scientific article about the sensor in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Doctor, a senior at Channel Islands High School in Oxnard, said her counselor chose her to participate in the program because she has always been interested in biology.

Plaxco and the other researchers acted as mentors to Doctor and Wood, both of whom significantly contributed to the project.

“They were building [the sensors] themselves within a week,” Plaxco said.

Doctor, who worked in the lab for approximately six weeks, said she was especially interested in how the sensors could help police and border patrol.

“Drug smugglers dilute the cocaine and border patrol officers can’t sense it [with current technology],” Doctor said. “But biosensors can detect it.”

Doctor said working on this project has reinforced her passion for biology and technology. She hopes to attend UC Irvine as a major in biology or biotechnology.

Wood, a senior at Santa Barbara High School, could not be reached for comment Monday evening.