Portable device that detects fentanyl in street drugs

February 7, 2020

After conducting a study on the amount of fentanyl in street drugs, lead researcher Dr. Traci Green, an appointed director of Brandeis University’s Opioid Policy Research Collaborative in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, says she is “pleased” with the success of new portable devices to detect the quantity of different substances in these drugs. Success in the development of these devices would decrease the amount of opioid deaths, according to Green.   

These portable devices (fentanyl test strips, a Raman spectrometer and a Fouirer-transform infrared spectrometer device) allow people that might have a hunch about the drug, or are unsure about it, to test and see what it contains. Previously, researchers could only figure out what the cause of the overdose was after the person had died, according to Green. The devices are currently the only tools that exist to detect a very exact measurement of the composition of the drugs, according to Green. 

“[Fentanyl in street drugs had taken] the eastern seaboard by storm, [and] really almost annihilated so much of our public health advances, so much of what our political systems had put in place because this particular compound, fentanyl, in the drug supply [had] just changed everything and we didn’t have a way to detect it,” Green told The Brandeis Hoot in an interview.

In 2017, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is estimated to be 100 times more potent than morphine and is used in pain management and anesthesia, was confirmed in 64 percent of opioid related deaths in Rhode Island and 85 percent of opioid related deaths in Massachusetts, according to a report published in the “International Journal of Drug Policy.”

Green told The Hoot that she has already heard from health centers in the nation that the study was “very compelling and it helped them with their conversations with their policy makers and the state, other funders to put science behind their wish to do as much as they can to help their people.” Her next step is to continue to use these devices in different communities and work with law enforcement to get a better sense of what is happening in the community before it gets too bad and be able to distribute these test strips to the public. 

The study looked at field-based portable devices “that you could bring to a public health community space or instruct and share with other people so that peers could teach each other to test for fentanyl’s presence,” said Green. 

The amount of fentanyl in street drugs is often unknown, so this puts the consumer of the drug at a high risk of unintentionally overdosing on it. The fentanyl test strips were found to be most effective in detecting fentanyl at very low levels in the street drugs. Researchers in the study found that the test strips didn’t get the total anatomy of the drug, however, so they had to use two devices to get everything. To use the test strips they dissolve the drug in water and then use the test strips to detect the amount of fentanyl that is in about the size of a grain of sand of the drug. 

Green said that she is happy to have anyone on campus who is interested in this topic and would like to do work on pushing for better public health and drug policies to contact her to potentially be able to volunteer on this topic.     

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