Chris Gill, co-director of VIU’s applied environmental research laboratory, left, and Scott Burden, undergraduate student, show the difference between a state-of-the-art paper spray mass spectrometry cartridge, used in a system that can be adapted to identify hundreds of deadly substances in their quantities in street drugs versus a conventional paper test strip which is slow to react and often blind to many substances that can spell an overdose and even death for drug users. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Researchers in Nanaimo competing to create life-saving drug-checking technology

VIU team receives $25,000 grant as a semifinalist for $1-million research prize

Vancouver Island University researchers have been awarded $25,000 by the government to help it detect the types and quantities of deadly substances present in street drugs.

Fentanyl, carfentanil and other opioid variants have claimed thousands of lives across Canada and new, increasingly lethal and difficult-to-detect fentanyl analogues continue to announce their arrivals through fatal overdoses.

Until now methods for detecting for those substances have been slow or have required specialized lab equipment not available at supervised injection sites and clinics.

Researchers at Vancouver Island University’s applied environmental research laboratories are developing a portable mass spectrometry detection system that can ferret out hundreds of these substances in less than a minute.

The program – a partnership with LifeLabs and Island Health and in consultation with the B.C. Centre for Substance Use – is led by Chris Gill, VIU chemistry professor and co-director of VIU’s AERL, which has developed portable mass spectrometry systems for determining air pollution sources in content in remote locations and other applications. The project started about two years ago after a colleague in Vancouver asked for help creating a system that could be used in clinics and supervised injection sites to quickly determine the contents and safety of street drugs immediately before they are ingested to prevent overdoses.

“So mass spectrometry is what he uses, but in a lab, to test on things like urine in substance use disorder patients, but … it’s slow. The turnaround time is a day, maybe three days, could be a week, and that’s not what we do. We do things quickly,” Gill said. “We want to get an answer then and there and the answers we always want are, ‘What’s there?’ and ‘How much is there?’”

Gill already had students experimenting with a technique called paper spray mass spectrometry to measure environmental contaminants.

With paper spray mass spectrometry, a sample of the substance to be analyzed is placed on the sharpened tip of a strip of absorbent paper. A solvent is added and the strip is loaded into a spectrum analyzer that creates a vacuum around the sample and applies high voltage to convert a portion of the sample into an ion cloud. Sensors “read” the resulting ion cloud to determine the chemical fingerprints of substances in the sample.

“They were having a hard time with the environmental contaminants because they weren’t ideally suited to this technique. Drugs are,” Gill said. “They work really well. They work better than I ever thought they would.”

Opiates have evolved over the past 100, from morphine in 1900 to heroine in the 1950s. Fentanyl, created as a painkiller and hundreds of times more potent than heroin, is now often the main ingredient in street drugs diluted with sugar or caffeine or both. Fentanyls are cheap to synthesize and mean high profits for drug dealers. Variants, such as extremely addictive central nervous system suppressant, etizolam, are hard to detect and fentanyl antidote naloxone is ineffective against etizolam overdose.

Gill said paper spray mass spectrometry can be adapted to detect such variants and requires only extremely small sample amounts, which means addicts are more apt to agree to have their drugs tested, and since each paper strip is disposed of after a test there is no sample cross-contamination within the testing system.

VIU is refining its portable opioid detection system around Thermo Fischer Scientific’s VeriSpray ion source unit and mass spectrometer, on loan from the company to help Gill and his team fine-tune drug testing methods and software in time for the for Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge in September for which the VIU project was awarded $25,000 as a semifinalist in April. Success against competing research programs means a $100,000 prize and a shot at the final stage of the challenge and a $1-million prize for research.

“Some of the technologies being proposed are reasonable, but I still think we’re ahead of the curve,” Gill said.

Gill said he’s confident the detection system can be scaled down to a small portable device that could be used almost anywhere to help save lives or at least help people manage their addictions and he hopes to attract a potential investor, perhaps someone who has lost a loved one or a recovered addict who wants to see the potential of this technology realized.

“When you’re doing this science, initial stuff, it’s quite expensive,” Gill said. “Half a million or three quarters of a million would really allow us to accelerate this to the front line.”



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An illustration provides a basic overview of how paper spray mass spectrometry functions. A tiny sample of a drug is placed on a sampling paper. Voltage is applied which ionizes the liquid sample and the ion spray or cloud is read by a spectrum analyzer. Illustration by Gregory Vandergrift, Vancouver Island University Applied Environmental Research Laboratories

Sample cartridges used in paper spray mass spectrometry analysis units are inexpensive, disposable and require only tiny samples for an analysis, qualities that should encourage supervised consumption sites, community clinics and people addicted to drugs to use drug testing services before street drugs are consumed and potentially trigger deadly overdoses. CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

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