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University of Alberta students, from left, Adarsh Badesha, Simran Dhillon and Ajay Gill in Edmonton, on April 23, 2021.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

University of Alberta students have designed a syringe that can warn drug users whether they are about to inject a lethal amount of fentanyl and potentially save them from a fatal overdose.

Simran Dhillon, Adarsh Badesha and Ajay Gill call the tool FentaGone, which will have embedded technology that visually warns a user if there is fentanyl present in any substance contained in the syringe. The science students hope their technology provides a more reliable and discreet way for people who use drugs to test their substances.

“We’ve witnessed addiction and the detriment it can cause within our own families and friend circles,” Ms. Dhillon said.

Ms. Dhillon and her peers won first place at the Telus Innovation Challenge in March, securing $100,000 to develop their prototype and prepare for clinical trials. The group also won first place at the U of A’s World’s Challenge Challenge, which is an annual competition that invites students to propose innovative solutions to global issues.

Across Canada, 82 per cent of accidental apparent opioid deaths between January and September, 2020, involved fentanyl, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The pandemic has exacerbated the opioid crisis, with several provinces recording record numbers of fatal overdoses last year. Public Health identified nearly 4,400 opioid deaths across the country from January to September of 2020, compared with about 3,800 in all of 2019. In Alberta, more than 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2020, nearly double the previous year, and 90 per cent of those deaths involved fentanyl.

“We’ve seen exponential growth in this [opioid] crisis. This indicates that as a society, we need to do more to support those most affected,” Ms. Dhillon said.

“One preventable life lost is too many.”

Drug users have already been able to use fentanyl test strips. Submerging the strips into the substance mixed with water will indicate within a few minutes if fentanyl was added to the drug.

Ms. Dhillon said her team noticed while doing research that drug users are less likely to use test strips because the users need training to use the strips correctly.

Health Canada also reported in 2018 that fentanyl test strips can be unreliable and report a false negative if misused.

The U of A students declined to explain the mechanics of the syringe because their research is proprietary, but they believe that integrating the physical indication of a test strip with a syringe is a better approach. Using the strips on their own requires drug users to disrupt their routine, which could make them less likely to use them. FentaGone will also only indicate if there is a lethal amount of fentanyl in a drug.

“Fentanyl is largely laced within most drugs at this point,” Ms. Dhillon said. “Testing for the presence is almost redundant. So, we’re hoping to instead set a baseline for individuals to understand their risk of overdose.”

Mr. Gill said they hope FentaGone can be distributed through supervised consumption sites so they can target both private users and people who may be homeless, but Mr. Badesha said they have a ways to go before they can release FentaGone.

The group plans to finish its research by the end of summer and approach clinical trials by the end of the year.

“We want to implement ourselves seamlessly into the system … and help the users as best we can,” Mr. Badesha said.

Technology like FentaGone could help save people with substance-use disorders said Giuseppe Ganci, director of community development at Last Door, a drug and alcohol treatment centre based in Vancouver.

“There are a lot of our clients who actually look for fentanyl,” said Mr. Ganci, who has worked at Last Door for 12 years. “For some people, having a little tester in their purse, or in their back pocket, is a great idea.”

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