New Science in Fight Against Killer Drugs

April 20, 2021 — NIST researchers are giving law enforcement and public health experts new tools to combat fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.

In the shadow of COVID-19, an older epidemic continues to rage. More than 81,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in the 12 months ending last May. That is the highest number ever recorded and a nearly 20% increase from the same period one year before.

This spike in deaths is being driven by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that mimics the effects of heroin but is up to 50 times more potent. A graph of the overdose statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the line for fentanyl turning sharply up starting in 2014. It’s been rising steeply ever since.

Fentanyl kills so many people in part because it is cheap, potent and easy to manufacture. In addition, clandestine chemists can easily cook up new varieties, or analogues, of fentanyl by tweaking its molecular structure. Dealers often spike heroin, cocaine and other drugs with fentanyl and its analogues. Users may not know what they’re getting, and they can more easily overdose as a result.

The high potency and changeability of fentanyl also present challenges to first responders, police and forensic chemists.

First, it is hazardous. During laboratory or field analysis, for example, particles can become airborne and even a small amount, if accidentally inhaled, can be dangerous.

Second, it hides behind other drugs. Analyzing drug mixtures that contain small but deadly amounts of fentanyl is complicated and requires the ability to detect substances at very low levels.

Third, it can fly under the radar. Traditional laboratory methods are not designed to detect and identify new drug analogues. This can hinder law enforcement and delay the public health response to newly emerging substances.

Drug abuse has plagued public health for decades, but the unprecedented toll of recent years reflects a new reality. Today’s illicit drugs are more dangerous and harder to control than the drugs of decades past.

“A new drug might appear, then three or six months later it’s gone, replaced by something new,” said NIST chemist and program manager Marcela Najarro. “It’s a totally different ballgame than 10 or 15 years ago.”

Limiting the harm from the opioid epidemic requires expertise from public health, social science, law enforcement and other domains. But one often overlooked need is expertise in the area of analytical chemistry.

As the nation’s chemical measurements laboratory, NIST is working on analytical methods to meet these challenges. Researchers with NIST’s Forensic Science Program are developing new tools that can speed up the public health response to newly emerging synthetic drugs. They are also improving existing technologies, developing new ones, and collaborating closely with law enforcement organizations and forensic labs to help them successfully implement solutions.

NIST recently published a beautfiully illustrated article outlining the steps it's taking to help battle fentanyl and synthetic opioids. You can read the full article here.

 

 
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