New method to identify opioids faster may help in combatting overdose crisis

A new testing method developed out of McMaster University could be used to better identify fentanyl and other drugs.

It's hard to identify new synthetic drugs with current testing methods, says McMaster researcher

An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on February 23, 2017. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

A new drug test developed at McMaster University could play a part combating the opioid crisis by more quickly and accurately identifying drugs such as Carfentanil, a version of fentanyl that is much deadlier.

Phillip Britz-McKibbin, one of the researchers in the study, said the new test can analyze a sample in two to three minutes. 

"You can not only screen more samples in a shorter time period, you can now screen for a wide panel of drugs with the same method," he said.

In the last week of October, there were 75 visits to Hamilton emergency departments for drug misuse or overdoses, where 28 were suspected overdoses. That compares to July there were 33 opioid-related emergency department visits and five admissions to the hospital.

Phillip Britz-McKibbin said the new testing method could better identify new synthetic analogs of known drugs. (McMaster University)

The new method that Britz-McKibbin and his team developed uses mass spectrometry, a technique that analyzes a sample down to its chemical components. Scientists can look at the specific components present to identify the drugs in the sample. 

He said the current method tests a sample against a group of known drugs, such as opioids, but the results wouldn't specify the specific kind of opioid.

At a point-of-care setting the existing method is convenient, he said, but the drawback is the results aren't accurate enough without a second laboratory test.

According to Britz-McKibbin, his team's new testing technique would be able to identify "designer drugs" that are new on the market without having to wait for the more extensive laboratory test.

Britz-McKibbin and his team published their research findings in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

"These illicit drug manufacturers are constantly developing analogs to evade those tests," he said.

The graph shows the number of emergency department visits for overdoses or drug misuse in Hamilton, published on the City of Hamilton website. (City of Hamilton)

What drugs are people using?

Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist at Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, said overdoses can happen in clusters when there's a particularly toxic batch of drugs in the community. He echoes Britz-McKibbin's wish to better identify synthetic analogs of drugs that are on the streets.

"We really have no idea what kind of fentanyl people are overdosing on," he said. He added he's heard "it's impossible to find uncontaminated heroin" on the streets these days.

Hamilton police seized a suspected bottle of liquid fentanyl in 2016, only to have Health Canada confirm it was Carfentanil. (Hamilton Police)

But Parkinson expressed concern about cost barrier to accessing the testing method Britz-McKibbin helped develop.

"Not all hospitals will have access to that kind of equipment would be my guess."

However, Britz-McKibbin said the new method could bring in savings by decreasing the number of tests needed. They will also be working to increase the amount of savings the new method can bring to a clinic or hospital.

Currently the research team has to conduct validation testing to ensure the new method can identify drugs that aren't screened currently.

They will be collaborating with a clinical laboratory in Mississauga which has expressed an interest in using the method in a clinical setting.

An application Britz-McKibbin mentioned is the ability to monitor patients at methadone clinics to ensure they are taking methadone and not other opioids.