Posted on September 23, 2019 — Jessica Jones Gupta
For the first responders treating a possible opioid overdose, it is vitally important to quickly identify the drug the patient took. A dosage of naloxone administered immediately to someone overdosing on fentanyl can bring them back from the brink and prevent long-term damage.
Unfortunately, the recent influx of illegal fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs, means that first responders, and even the patient, may not know what drug was taken. Existing products on the market are unable to help, as they either cannot be performed on-site or they lack the sensitivity to identify small quantities of fentanyl.
In 112 adults that died of intravenous fentanyl overdose, the concentration in their urine averaged 3.9 ng/ml – that is below the level of sensitivity found in commercially available point-of-care fentanyl tests.
That’s where Dr. Ping Wang and her research team at the University of Pennsylvania come in. They have invented a portable, point-of-care test for fentanyl that can identify concentrations as low as 1 ng/ml. The technology is a lateral flow immunoassay test strip and it is 10 times more sensitive than the current commercially available point-of-care fentanyl tests. The test strip was successfully tested in samples from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania ER.
With its fast results and easy use, this new point-of-care test could mean the difference between life and death for someone going through a fentanyl overdose.
Fentanyl: A deadly wave
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2016, 50% of opioid related deaths involved synthetic opioids. The CDC refers to this stage of the opioid epidemic as the Third Wave (first prescriptions, then heroin, and now fentanyl).
Along with those abusing prescription fentanyl, the drug is increasingly sourced illegally from abroad and added to heroin and cocaine to increase their potency. Many of those who overdose on fentanyl did not even know they took it. There were approximately 30,000 fentanyl related deaths in 2017 and the outlook is only getting worse (NIDA).
No longer under water
By using this new point-of-care fentanyl test, first responders and doctors can solve the most important question, ‘did the patient overdose on fentanyl?’, without needing to wait until the long trip to the hospital. Even small doses of fentanyl, laced into crack cocaine, amphetamines, and other drugs, can be identified and then factored into the medical treatment.
With further testing, this point-of-care test strip may be adapted to identify residual fentanyl on surface or in packages and shipments used in the transportation of illegal fentanyl. If drugs on the streets are found to have deadly levels of fentanyl, they can send out a public health warning to the community and avoid more loss of life.
Dr. Ping Wang and her research team
This point-of-care test, combined with the quick thinking of first responders and medication like naloxone, can prevent an overdose from turning deadly. It is a small ray of hope in the midst of a crisis where hope seems to be the hardest thing to find.