Cadet 1st Class Alexa Gingras prepares a lysogeny broth Feb. 13 during a biochemistry lab. The broth is used to grow bacteria, which Gingras uses to produce fluorescent proteins for her research, which involves getting fluorescent proteins to react to illegal drugs. Gingras is a native of Tucson, Ariz. (Don Branum / Air Force)
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Alexa Gingras hoped to spend last summer working in biofuel. Instead the Air Force Academy cadet first class dabbled in another yellow liquid — urine.
And the switch has paid off in a big way. Gingras' research helped devise a method that detects the synthetic marijuana known as spice in urine samples for six to eight weeks after it is ingested, a method that is now the standard practice for all Air Force spice drug tests.
“These changes in the testing parameters were implemented immediately after they were certified and improved the lab's ability to detect and report spice samples,” said Lt. Col. Michelle Ewy, commander of the Air Force Drug Testing Laboratory.
Gingras, along with researchers Dennis Lovett and Enrique Yanes, worked at the Air Force Drug Testing Laboratory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The biochemistry major was the first cadet to take part in research there.
She chose the spice project because the biofuel research was at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and budget cuts meant the Academy could no longer send her there on temporary duty.
“Lackland hasn't had any cadets come down, so I saw it as a good opportunity,” Gingras said in an interview with Air Force Times. “I became interested in the chemistry behind spice and found real-world applications for this kind of chemistry, which is important for what I was and am learning.”
The Air Force announced in 2012 that it had begun its own urinalysis to ramp up testing for the chemicals commonly found in spice, a psychoactive drug illegal in the military. Spice has unpredictable effects that can include hallucinations and hyper-aggressive behavior.
The Pentagon banned it in 2010, and all the services test for it, although there is currently no random testing for spice in the military.
Gingras' research may keep some of her own classmates from being booted out of the academy. Cadets who were willing to risk dabbling in spice before might think twice if they knew testing could show spice use for weeks rather than days.
“This research became so diligent because we want our military members to stop using spice,” she said.
The Air Force punished 497 airmen for spice use in 2011. At the Air Force Academy — with cases overlapping into 2012 — 33 cadets were investigated, 27 of them receiving nonjudicial punishment, with 21 resigning. Five were kicked out, six cases were dropped. Of the six cases that were dropped, two of those cadets voluntarily resigned from the academy, according to John Van Winkle, deputy chief of media relations at the Air Force Academy.
Spice has also become a health concern for members beyond the military.
In a recent study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 16 people in six states developed acute kidney injury in 2012 after using the drug. All were hospitalized, and five required dialysis.
How she did it
The first few weeks of research had Gingras and her team working with “extraction,” i.e. urine.
“You can't just ‘test' urine,” Gingras said. “You have to prep the urine, which could take [a skilled technician] anywhere from three to five hours.”
She and the researchers looked at an extraction method called SALLE (salting-out assisted liquid-liquid extraction), which uses organic and water-based solutions to pull analytes — a substance or material chemically analyzed, such as a molecule — out of the urine.
It's a way to “purify” the urine, Gingras explained. The new method shortened the urine prep time to about 10 minutes.
“The chemists I was working with came up with the extraction to speed up the testing process, saving the Air Force time and money,” she said. “This will be a huge turnover for the future of drug testing methods.”
Next, their research included a combination of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, a standard method for testing samples, Gingras said.
“[The liquid chromatography stage] forces some sort of media through a horizontal column and the sample interacts with the media, which will either go faster or slower through the column. The point is to separate different molecules based on their properties — something will come off fast, something will come off slow, and then you can tell by the retention time what came off,” she said.
Then, the solution is nebulized into a mist and passed into the mass spectrometer, which analyzes and detects those molecules based on their mass-to-charge ratio. The analysis tells you “what that molecule is,” Gingras said.
But her research didn't stop there.
After spending most of a week reading through existing research, Gingras decided it was time to change up some variables: She added ammonium bicarbonate — sometimes used as a baking substitute for baking soda — which increased the sensitivity of the solution.
What did this mean?
“[Because of the ammonium bicarbonate additive solution] you can pop somebody positive from a much lower concentration, which also increases the time of weeks they can still test positive, from one to two weeks to six to eight weeks,” Gingras said.
The 21-year-old cadet is now working on another project for her independent study capstone in her major, which aims to identify drug use through someone's breath.
“This is all very new and fresh still, but I'm working with a different variation of drugs — cocaine, methadone, PCP — and testing fluorescent proteins to detect the presence of illegal drugs in a person's system,” she said.
Gingras said the goal of this research is to one day produce a portable breathalyzer that law enforcement can use to catch someone using illegal drugs besides alcohol.
She expects this research will take much longer, and she will “happily pass on her binder of research to the next rising senior” at the Academy.
Gingras has applied to medical schools around the country and also to osteopathic medical schools, which put emphasis on the relationship between the musculoskeletal system and organs. She has been given a scholarship from the Air Force that will apply wherever she decides to go.
She already has a pretty impressive resume, since her research has already been published on the Air Force's internal Operating Instructions and Forms sites, and her research associates, Lovett and Yanes, are now working on a paper about their optimization and testing method set to be published in medical journals this summer.
For her efforts, Gingras was awarded the “Thomas D. Moore Award for Outstanding Cadet Summer Research, Basic Sciences Division, 2012” at the Air Force Academy's annual Research Awards held Feb. 1 at the Academy.
Gingras' drug testing advancements “exemplify the outstanding undergraduate research conducted” at the Academy, said Air Force Chief Scientist Mark Maybury, who spoke at Gingras' recognition event Feb. 1. “Her efforts have made practical contributions to drug test accuracy and speed with a critical deterrent effect on substance abuse for our armed services.”