How can a first responder or doctor know if an overdose victim has taken a not-so-common designer drug? Chemists say that a designer drug test would do the trick, and they’re already working on formulating one that is universal enough to be useful in making a diagnosis.

Many people buy and use synthetic drugs – from “synthetic marijuana” to chemically engineered opioids from the dark web. Because most of these drugs are made undercover, there is little to no quality control. One batch can vary ingredients.

Overdoses aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be because of the variations in the market. The researchers working on a solution are presenting their results this week at the 255th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“Hospitals can test for some drugs, like methamphetamine or cocaine, and those tests are pretty fast,” Nicholas E. Manicke, Ph.D., told Technology Networks. “But for the new drugs, like fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids, they would have to collect a blood sample and ship it to a toxicology lab. They wouldn’t get the results back for weeks. In a life-or-death situation, that won’t work, so they never do the test.” Manicke wants his screening system to be accurate, versatile and efficient enough that it can be used in emergency rooms to identify the drugs responsible for a patient’s overdose within a few minutes.

Opioid deaths are still rising throughout the United States, and fatalities more recently can be linked to prescription painkillers fentanyl and tramadol are even more devastating. The new test could help medical staff prevent deaths from unknown designer drugs as well as more common synthetic drugs. Many overdose victims arrive at the ER unconscious and are unable to articulate which substance they’ve taken. Others may be on multiple drugs, or unwilling to admit to drug use at all. Manicke and his team at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are working a device that can screen for synthetic compounds, as well as more well-known street drugs like heroin or cocaine.