The demand to perform rapid and selective testing for small molecules in biological samples using inexpensive instrumentation is increasing. For example, current drug testing methods rely on antibody-based assays, which can produce false-positive results, requiring additional expensive mass spectrometry-based testing to establish if the illegal substance is present.

A University of Utah inventor developed a novel detection platform based on nucleic acid aptamers capable of selectively detecting small molecules such as drugs, toxins, or metabolites in complex biological systems. The key aspect of the platform is split aptamer ligation technology, which generates an aptamer-based, enzyme-linked detection system that is superior to existing antibody-based assays, as it allows for rapid and inexpensive detection at low concentrations. The new platform has the potential to distinguish between structurally similar analytes such as morphine and codeine. In addition, it will find broad application in the fields of forensics, medical diagnostics, and environmental research.