STEM Research spotlight on…Kelly Elkins

By Megan Bradshaw on June 21, 2016

FCSM assistant professor in chemistry develops an inexpensive, quick way to detect and identify trace plant material with hallucinogenic and psychedelic effects

Despite the increasing legalization of marijuana, controlled substances and “legal highs” continue to be seized by police as potential drug evidence.

Law enforcement needs quick and inexpensive methods to test seized materials to determine their identities and whether those materials were the cause of individuals’ illnesses and/or deaths—even if the amounts of materials collected are contaminated or too small for other detection methods. That’s where Towson University assistant professor Kelly Elkins and master’s students Anjelica Perez and Alicia Quinn come in.

Assistant professor Kelly Elkins
Assistant professor Kelly Elkins

They are collaborating with the Maryland State Police Crime Laboratory and the Baltimore City Police Department to develop a new polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to detect and identify species of interest like “legal high” plant materials, such as marijuana, and other legal and easy-to-access species reportedly used for their hallucinogenic and psychedelic effects. Elkins’ test can detect and differentiate four “legal high” species simultaneously at a cost of approximately one dollar a sample.

Elkins received a one-year grant from the Forensic Sciences Foundation to support the identification and differentiation of marijuana, opium poppy, morning glory and jimson weed plant species. The simultaneous detection of those four species and the fact it is cheaper, simpler and faster than other methods make Elkins’ test valuable to law enforcement officials.

The results of the research will be published in a forthcoming paper, co-authored by Perez and fellow graduate student Kate Sweetin. The manuscript is under consideration for publication in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the journal of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS).

Through an AAFS Forensic Sciences Foundation International Association of Forensic Sciences (IAFS) Scholarship, Elkins traveled to the 2014 IAFS meeting in Seoul, Korea in October, 2014 to present initial results on this research. More recently, Quinn presented new results on the project in an oral presentation at the 68th annual Scientific Meeting of the AAFS in Las Vegas, Nevada in February, 2016.

Elkins’ research team has also been able to extend the test to differentiating three food-borne pathogens, two of which have been used as weapons of mass destruction (or disruption), including Salmonella enterica typhimurium (“Salmonella”) and Shigella flexneri. The third agent detected by the test is Escherichia coli (“E. coli”). 

Elkins, Perez and Sweetin published the results of this study in the journal Analytical Biochemistry. Elkins was recently interviewed about this research for a feature article on

Undergraduate TU forensic chemistry student Thomas Boise joined the project this year and has conducted further specificity, limit of detection, and spiked apple cider studies and compared the test to a commercial water strip test kit. He will present the results as a poster at the 252nd American Chemical Society National meeting in Philadelphia in August, 2016.

Elkins aims to develop additional tests to detect and identify additional plant species, and magic mushroom species, using unique gene and non-gene regions of the DNA that vary between species.

This article is the first in an occasional series on Towson University professors completing STEM research projects.