A New Method to Screen For Fentanyl & Other Drugs

By Paul Gaita 11/10/17

The new testing method cuts processing time and provides greater accuracy in screening while also identifying more types of drugs.

Male scientist in the medical laboratory filling test tubes with pipette.

As fentanyl continues to devastate communities throughout the United States and Canada, a newer and more accurate technique to screen for the synthetic opioid—along with other drugs—may provide much-needed assistance in combating the opioid dependency and overdose crisis.

The method—developed by researchers at Canada's McMaster University and detailed in the current issue of Analytical Chemistry—drastically reduces the time and steps currently employed to monitor for drug use, and allows for identification of a wide array of drugs, as well as "designer" drugs that may not be detectable through traditional testing. The researchers also claim that the method may assist physicians in determining if patients are compromising treatment by not following prescription requirements.

Lead study author Philip Britz-McKibbin outlined the problem which led to the research and development of the new method.

"Drug testing is always behind the times since screening relies on anti-body reagents that target only known drugs and they are prone to error, which contributes to higher health care costs and delays to clinical decision-making," he noted. "Current technologies are not specific, accurate nor comprehensive enough, which impairs a physician's ability to properly care for patients, such as monitoring for drug compliance, potential substitution or polydrug usage."

The method developed by Britz-McKibbin and fellow researchers would allow technicians to abandon the two-step process used by labs and run multiple tests at once with a higher degree of accuracy and thoroughness. In doing so, the new method cuts processing time and provides greater accuracy in screening while also identifying more types of drugs, including synthetics, tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medication. 

The new method also eliminates the high number of false positives and negatives that are part and parcel with current testing methods, which require multiple re-tests and further slow down the screening process. Britz-McKibbin noted that the method could also be employed to confirm whether patients are taking the proper dosage of prescription medication, including anti-anxiety medication, or if their current prescription is being compromised by the use of other drugs. 

Researchers will next seek to prove the method's efficacy against current screening procedures by conducting tests for a broad spectrum of drugs on in-patient subjects currently under the care of medical professionals.

If the new method proves effective, it comes at a crucial point in the fentanyl and opioid epidemic: recent statistics attributed 20,000 U.S. deaths from the drug and its analogs in 2016, while an estimated 2,800 Canadian residents died from fentanyl overdoses in that same year.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.