Helping authorities detect fentanyl analogues

The past several years has seen growing awareness of a drug called fentanyl, which is increasingly cited in relation to drug overdoses, including many high profile deaths, as well as becoming the focus of many law enforcement agencies, especially in the United States.

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have named fentanyl the most significant synthetic opioid threat in the U.S. in 2018, while the Centre for Disease Control in the United States have determined that the rate of drug overdose death from synthetic opioids, not including methadone, doubled in just one year from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, opioids caused 42,000 deaths, and nearly half of those were fentanyl-related, including the deaths of Prince, Tom Petty and Lil Peep.

But is fentanyl a new drug? And if not, why has it suddenly become a major factor in the opioid crisis?

Fentanyl was first synthesised in 1959 by Paul Janssen and has been used as a pain reliever and general anaesthetic in operating rooms. While there are legitimate uses for fentanyl, it presents a formidable public health risk, especially in the United States. While some drug users seek it out for recreational use, many are unaware that what they are buying is fentanyl, as illicit drug makers use it to adulterate more expensive pharmaceuticals and opioids, like heroin. It is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and while it only costs $6,000 to purchase one kilogram of fentanyl in a lab, that one kilogram can have a distribution value of up to $1.6 million. This presents an enormous economic motive for replacing common opioids with fentanyl.

Fentanyl analogues, or compounds with a similar molecular structure, make it even more difficult to regulate. Analogues are manufactured in labs, and once one is discovered by law enforcement and outlawed, another analogue is already waiting to be put into use. Some, like carfentanil, are particularly dangerous. Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl (making it 10,000 times stronger than a unit of morphine), and as such, is used to sedate large mammals, like elephants. These highly potent drugs can rapidly incapacitate by causing central nervous and respiratory depression.

Our Sport and Specialised Analytical Services team performs analysis for forensics laboratories, including those working with police authorities and coroners, to detect and identify drugs in body fluids and drug seizures.  Work is also performed to understand more about how the latest drugs are metabolised in the body. The study of drug metabolism, or pharmacokinetics, is vital to understanding how drugs break down in the human body.  In a forensic environment it is very important to know how the body changes a drug in order to be able to detect it in forensic tests.

Scientists at LGC Simon Hudson and Charlotte Cutler studied the metabolic fate of several analogues of fentanyl, including carfentanil, and published three white papers on their findings. Each paper goes through their methodology, which can be used as an aid to detect the analogues in biological fluids.

In one of the case studies, Simon studied carfentanil in post mortem blood samples.  Not much has been understood about the metabolism of carfentanil, which suggests that the true extent of carfentanil-related deaths is unknown. After analysing over 70 carfentanil cases, Simon found that the parent drug was always present in blood and urine post mortem and that in some cases, due to the low levels of carfentanil, extremely sensitive analytical equipment was required detect it’s presence.

In the other papers, Simon and Charlotte studied samples from UK siezures of drugs that were originally reported by authorities in Latvia and Slovenia between December 2016 and August 2017. They were able to identify many metabolites of cyclopropylfentanyl and methoxyacetylfentanyl. These studies are a beneficial tool to help authorities and scientists detect these analogues in the future.

To learn more about the history of fentanyl, its chemistry and current issues, watch our interesting webinar. And to understand more about Simon’s work and studies on the drug, read the white papers on carfentanil, methoxyacetylfentanyl, and cyclopropylfentanyl.

Fatbergs: The monster lurking below

If you haven’t been paying attention to sewer-related news throughout the past few years, you might have missed that fatbergs are a thing. Large (sometimes hundreds of metres long), congealed lumps of fat and other substances, fatbergs have been clogging up the sewer systems under major cities like London, Melbourne, Baltimore and Cardiff.

martin-brechtl-721491-unsplashJust a quick Google search of the word ‘fatberg’ turns up a trove of related videos and news that could gross anyone out. Fatbergs now have their own museum exhibition and were even the subject of a prime time documentary, Fatberg Autopsy, which is exactly as captivating and weird as it sounds.  And just as our fascination for these grotesque reflections of modern life has grown faster than a fatberg in a sewer, so is our understanding of them.

These beasts begin to form when large amounts of cooking oils, fats and grease are dumped into drains, where they thicken. Adding to the frequency of fatbergs is the increased usage of wet wipes, which don’t break down in drainage pipes, but instead team up with the congealed cooking oils to form a monster from a subterranean horror film. Fatbergs are particularly susceptible in old pipes or pipes with rough walls where debris can get trapped and build up.

And despite its moniker, documented fatbergs are mostly made up of wet wipes, which account for 93 percent of the material blocking sewers, while actual fat and grease make up only 0.5 percent. In one case, the fatberg in London had grown to weigh as much as a blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed.

Studying products of human behaviour, like fatbergs, can provide a lot of information into how people in these cities live.

Simon Hudson, Technical Director of Sport and Specialised Analytical Services at LGC, has been involved with method development and analysis for many projects looking into identifying the makeup of substances found in public systems, like fatbergs. In addition to analysing samples for Fatberg Autopsy, Simon has also worked with scientists from King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust and King’s Health Partners, Hull York Medical School and other institutions to analyse anonymised pooled urine from UK cities.

By using various analytical methods on samples from street urinals, the scientists have been able to provide a geographical trend analysis of the recreational drugs and novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that are being used, showing the most common drugs in specific cities.

Studies on recreational drug use have traditionally been done by self-reported user surveys, which are helpful but flawed if respondents either don’t know what drugs they are taking or don’t disclose everything they’ve used. By analysing samples from urinals, these methods can be used to confirm actual drugs being used and can be particularly useful for public health initiatives in identifying new psychoactive substances that may not have been reported or known to officials yet. It also provides insight into common potential adulterants of drugs.

By taking pooled samples from street urinals near night clubs and bars, these studies provide a snapshot of what is happening inside the night life across UK cities.

Findings include everything from nicotine and caffeine to cocaine, cannabis, ketamine, methamphetamine, anabolic steroids and several uncontrolled psychoactive substances. In one specific study¹, cocaine and 3,4-methylenedioxy–methamphetamine (MDMA, Ecstasy) were the most common recreational drugs to turn up, while morphine and methadone were detected in seven and six cities, respectively.

Like his analysis of fatbergs, Simon’s work on urine samples provides insight into the hidden aspects of modern life, the things that aren’t talked about over coffee or seen while heading into the office. They’re also valuable in shaping public health knowledge and responses to potential issues.

If you’re interested in learning more about our science, head over to lgcgroup.com or read Simon’s various publications on pooled urine analysis listed below.

 

¹Archer, J.R.H, S. Hudson, O. Jackson, T. Yamamoto, C. Lovett, H.M. Lee, S. Rao, L. Hunter, P.I. Dargan, and D.M. Wood (2015). Analysis of anonymized pooled urine in nine UK cities: variation in classical recreational drug, novel psychoactive substance and anabolic steroid use.  QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. 108(12), pp. 929-933.

Other publications:

  1. R. H Archer, P. I. Dargan, S. Hudson, S. Davies, M. Puchnarewicz, A. T. Kicman, J. Ramsey, F. Measham, M. Wood, A. Johnston, and D. M. Wood (2013). Taking the Pissoir – a novel and reliable way of knowing what drugs are being used in nightclubs. Journal of Substance Use. 00 (0), pp. 1-5.
  2. R. H. Archer, P. I. Dargan, H. M. D. Lee, S. Hudson & D. M. Wood (2014) Trend analysis of anonymised pooled urine from portable street urinals in central London identifies variation in the use of novel psychoactive substances, Clinical Toxicology, 52:3, 160-165, DOI: 10.3109/15563650.2014.885982