An ultra-toxic drug surfacing in Alberta's black market traces its origins to medical research conducted in Edmonton more than 30 years ago.
W-18, a synthetic opioid with no known clinical use, is considered 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl; a similar narcotic responsible for at least 213 overdose deaths in Alberta last year.
Only ever been tested on mice, human consumption of the W-18 — especially among street users — could have deadly consequences, according to forensic chemist Brian Escamilla.
"When fentanyl hit the streets, we often saw overdose deaths. You're likely to see that here too, just because of the potency of this compound," said Escamilla,who works at California firm which specializes in training law enforcement agencies in the safe handling of clandestine drugs.
W-18 was largely unheard of in Alberta until a drug bust last August put the law enforcement community on alert.
In what was the first publicized seizure of the drug on record in Canada, three of 110 pills seized from a home on the outskirts of Calgary, tested positive for the narcotic.
Though Edmonton police haven't seen the drug here yet, they are warning students about its dangers in school presentations across the city.
The drug was first developed in the early 1980's by a group of University of Alberta researchers.
Chemists stumbled upon formula
In an attempt to create a non-addictive painkiller, the team of chemists, led by pharmacology professor Ed Knaus, stumbled upon the formula for W-18.
"They developed some new compounds," said Escamilla. "In a matter of fact, they actually developed more than 30 compounds.
"But none of the compounds got picked up by a pharmaceutical company so, in essence, their patent lapsed and it just sat on a shelf until someone in China went through the old medical journals, found this compound and started synthesizing it."
According to Escamilla, clandestine labs overseas are taking advantage of a lack of stringent regulation on W-18, and other "designer drugs."
Although never approved for use on humans, W-18 has yet to be classified as a controlled substance in Canada or the United States, creating a legal grey area for smugglers.
"These labs in China, they've been trying to find legal substitutes for drugs like MDMA, which is ecstasy, for amphetamines, for cocaine. They just now started to venture into the opiate drugs.
"They started with fentanyl, and now they've found something more potent than fentanyl," said Escamilla.
'A lot of profit to be made'
"There is a lot of profit to be made and it also skirts most of your government regulations when it comes to controlling narcotics."
W-18 is so potent, ingesting even a minute trace could have dire consequences, according to Escamilla.
"When you look at fentanyl itself, your average dose is 125 micrograms, which is equivalent to the size of two grains of salt.
"This drug is 100 times more potent than that," said Escamilla who notes that the drugs are created in unregulated labs, where dosing will be unreliably dangerous.
"When you try and cut a drug up to that level, you're going to have 'hot spots' in the tablets. There are going to be individual dosages that have elevated drug concentrations that are going to take people out."
Alberta hospitals have been on alert for signs of W-18 overdoses since the beginning of the year.
Although there is no evidence that use of the drug has become widespread, Escamilla says the true numbers would be impossible to track.
"Because these drugs are in such residual concentrations, it's very difficult if not impossible to pick these up in a field test or toxicology," said Escamilla.
"We might be missing some overdose deaths."