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Trial project to test drugs for fentanyl gets $1.7M

Health Canada to fund efforts by UVic researchers
Bruce Wallace, associate professor of social work and scientist with UVic's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, looks on as chemistry co-op student Ashley Larnder analyzes a client's drug sample at AIDS Vancouver Island in Victoria.

A pilot project at the University of Victoria to develop methods to test street-level narcotics for deadly compounds such as fentanyl and carfentanil is getting a $1.7-million grant from Health Canada.

Health Minister Ginette Pettipas Taylor announced the grant Tuesday at Victoria Cool Aid Society on Pandora Avenue, pointing to 10,337 overdose fatalities in three years.

“And that number continues to grow each and every day,” she said. “These are not figures on a balance sheet.

“These are moms, dads, brothers, sisters, our friends and our neighbours.”

Fentanyl and carfentanil are potent synthetic opioids often associated with overdose deaths.

Dennis Hore, a chemistry professor at UVic, and Bruce Wallace, associate professor of social work, are testing a four-stage process designed to yield information about what chemicals people are actually injecting.

The process involves chemical test strips, and three stages of specialized technology examining substances at the molecular level.

The methods will be tested at harm-reduction stations at SOLID outreach on Yates Street and AIDS Vancouver Island.

Hore said current drug testing can detect only the presence of fentanyl and other elements, but researchers hope to eventually be able to detect the amount or concentration levels.

Data gathered during the pilot project from testing various street narcotics submitted will help lead to development of a test of that type, he said.

Along with the testing of the technology, drug users will be surveyed to explore what testing works best for whom and in what settings.

Technicians involved with the pilot project said it has become rare to find traditional opioids such as heroin. Most narcotics sold as heroin are substances such as caffeine laced with fentanyl.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, said studies continue to yield new revelations about the overdose-death crisis.

For example, recent information from Vancouver indicated 30 per cent of the people who died from drug overdoses were only occasional users of opioids.

“And with this new drug testing, we will perhaps be able to look differently at the treatment side,” Stanwick said. “This is continuous learning.

“I see [drug testing] as a huge evolutionary step in addressing this ghastly, horrible problem.”