A Victoria pharmacy catering to the city's drug-using population has partnered with a chemistry professor to develop a device that can detect both the presence and quantities of deadly adulterants such as fentanyl in street drugs.
The success of the technology could have implications for B.C.'s response to soaring drug-overdose rates, through initiatives such as detailed, on-site testing of street drugs or mapping the presence of particularly toxic batches in real-time and responding accordingly.
STS Pain Pharmacy has, since last year, offered a basic dip test with which drug users could determine whether their drugs contain fentanyl. CEO Alain Vincent said that, of roughly 150 samples tested, 90 per cent contained the powerful synthetic opioid.
"Quickly, we realized that what was important was to find quantities, because [fentanyl] was present in unexpected drugs like crystal meth, cocaine, crack cocaine," he said. "Cocaine users, for example, were very interested to know if there was fentanyl in their drugs, and how much was in it."
The pharmacy partnered with Dennis Hore, a chemistry professor at the University of Victoria, and the two secured a $25,000 grant from the federal government's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. In June of 2016, they began developing a device that uses light to identify molecules based on their unique vibrations – essentially looking for the fingerprint of each substance.
The current prototype is comparable in size to a microscope but the pair envision it one day being a hand-held device that can connect to a smart phone.
Mr. Vincent's short-term goal is to be able to tell people who frequent his specialty pharmacy in Victoria whether there is fentanyl in their drugs and, if so, exactly how much of it there is.
"We see maybe hundreds of drug users every day because they are in treatment, they come here to take methadone," he said. "We quickly realized that a pharmacy can be a vehicle to do serious research on illicit substances."
But a long-term goal is to expand the use of this device, which is relatively inexpensive, and build a comprehensive library of samples that can then be shared with other addictions facilities, social-service organizations and health authorities, for example.
Creating a public library of data is a possibility, Mr. Hore said.
"It could be used in two ways: We could suddenly increase the capability of the instrument because the training data comes from [elsewhere]," he said. "People could upload samples. Likewise, our spectral library could be available for other people to use."
Fentanyl, which is fuelling Canada's overdose crisis, has been cut into a growing percentage of street drugs each year because of its low cost and high potency. Drug users who do not typically use opioids – such as those who use cocaine or crystal meth – are particularly susceptible to overdoses.
Two milligrams of fentanyl – an amount about the size of two grains of salt – can be enough to kill a healthy adult.
To be able to test for various substances is particularly useful, as fentanyl analogues – drugs that are chemically similar – are never too far behind. Carfentanil, which is much more toxic than fentanyl, is confirmed to be in B.C. and is suspected in a recent surge in overdose deaths.
The team is hoping to begin piloting the device at the pharmacy by May, with an initial focus on fentanyl detection.
"I think if we have good success with fentanyl, that will open the door to many other things," Mr. Vincent said.
Insite, Vancouver's supervised-injection site, began offering users basic fentanyl tests on a voluntary basis last summer. From July 7, 2016, to Jan. 11, 2017, 79 per cent of 1,045 samples tested contained fentanyl, including 83 per cent of samples reported by clients to be heroin.
A record 922 died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year. Fentanyl was detected in about 60 per cent of those deaths.