Skip to main content

Nic Medgyesi, left, and University of Victoria professor Dennis Hore demonstrate the device that can detect fentanyl in street drugs.

Handout

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Overdose deaths in B.C. are at an all time high with 60% of cases involving fentanyl. We look at how that compares to other causes of deaths on a national scale
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading…

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.