Developing a Better Detection Method
Arizona State University (ASU) was responding to a major change after 2010 in the U.S. state of Arizona. It was wrestling with the potential safety issues that would accompany the legalization of medical marijuana by the voters. University researchers were looking for a way to detect impairment on the roadways and workplace.
Marijuana is one of the most commonly used recreational substances responsible for employee impairment. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 18 percent of U.S. adults said they had used marijuana in the past year—11 percent said they had used the drug during the past month.
(THC) remains in the body for up to four weeks after its use, at levels far below those needed to intoxicate or impair the user.
Our ASU researchers were aware that the active ingredient in marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), remains in the body for up to four weeks after its use, at levels far below those needed to intoxicate or impair the user. That meant that traditional tests methods—and even the use of a breathalyzer—would be of limited value in detecting or inferring impairment because urine or saliva drug tests merely confirm the presence of THC but not whether a person is physically or cognitively impaired.
While at ASU, the researchers set out to find and develop a simple, reliable, and rapid way to detect temporary neurological impairment that is indicative of intoxication. Two Nobel laureate trained neuroscientists from Barrow Neurological Institute (Phoenix) who were also adjunct professors at ASU, helped the team to develop a way to detect changes in the oculomotor system indicative of intoxication from drugs that affect the centers of the brain that control eye movement. Patents were filed and have been awarded to the Arizona Board of Regents and licensed by ASU to Zxerex Corporation.
Later, some of those same researchers sponsored a human subject research study at State University of New York (SUNY), Downstate Medical Center, to identify the characteristic effects of marijuana on eye movement. The research was conducted by SUNY, with assistance from the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. The effort resulted in developing a unique oculomotor biosignature consistent with marijuana intoxication. This biosignature is a measurable pattern of changes in eye movement that are expected to be found when a person is intoxicated.
Following further confirmation of these findings, the researchers conducted field trials to validate that a rapid test would produce comparable results. The work led to the development of a cloud-based analytic screening system that employers can use to detect impairment, especially where employees are involved in high-risk jobs such as agriculture, manufacturing, disaster recovery, and transportation. A recent National Safety Council survey found that one third of employees say the have observed cannabis use during work hours, despite many employers in safety-sensitive industries having zero-tolerance policies for marijuana use. This is because employee impairment can lead to increasing workplace injuries, casualty loss, and reduced productivity.
Given the potential impact on the workplace, accurate screening abilities are important for determining when someone is under the influence. Armed with this capability and when used with a company’s current safety program, companies can reduce workplace injuries and absenteeism, while increasing worker productivity. The ability to detect marijuana impairment will also serve as a deterrent to those who choose to show up impaired or become impaired on the job.
Richard Besserman, M.D., is chairman, CEO/CSO, and founder of ZXEREX. Dr. Besserman and his partner co-founded ZXEREX Corporation to commercialize the intellectual property their team had developed while at Arizona State University and the Barrow Neurological Institute. As a serial entrepreneur, Dr. Besserman brought early-stage business development experience in occupational health and safety, bioinformatics, and risk management. He was formerly, the CEO of Infogen Corporation, developers of the SENTRY Occupational Health and Surveillance System, and AHS Corporation, a developer of electronic medical equipment. He holds a doctorate in medicine and a master of science degree in technology.
Todd Ostrander, is board member, strategic advisor of ZXEREX. Ostrander is a four-time venture-backed founder/CEO in the technology industry dating back to 1995 growing businesses whose values have achieved over $1.5b combined. Today, Ostrander leads the technology practice for the Investment Banking firm of JD Merit & Co. and acts as a strategic advisor to provide go-to-market, business strategy and structuring guidance to early and growth stage technology companies. He shares the passion and empathy for those whose lives have been impacted because of the inappropriate use of drugs and desires to see the ZXEREX technology become mainstream to ensure that our workforce and roadways remain safe for everyone.
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