Epi­demic: DEA chemists race to iden­tify syn­thetic opi­oids

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Emily Dye walked down the echo­ing white hall­way and into a dim room known as “the vault.” The ev­i­dence was wrapped in plas­tic. She checked it out and placed it into a steel lock­box. New drugs were ap­pear­ing ev­ery other week in the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Spe­cial Test­ing and Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory, an un­marked gray build­ing in north­ern Vir­ginia. Dye, a 27year-old DEA chemist, knew her sam­ple could be one of them. “Man,” she said. “I’ve got to fig­ure out what this is.”

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of rapidly evolv­ing syn­thetic opi­oids has be­come so fierce that the DEA says they now con­sti­tute an en­tire new class of drugs, which are fu­el­ing the dead­li­est ad­dic­tion cri­sis the United States has ever seen. The fen­tanyl-like drugs are pour­ing in pri­mar­ily from China, US of­fi­cials say - an as­ser­tion Bei­jing main­tains has not been sub­stan­ti­ated . Laws can­not keep pace with the speed of sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion. As soon as one sub­stance is banned, chemists syn­the­size slightly dif­fer­ent, and tech­ni­cally le­gal, mol­e­cules and sell that sub­stance on­line, de­liv­ery to US doorstops guar­an­teed.

To­day, it is almost as easy to or­der an ever-shift­ing ar­ray of syn­thetic opi­oids on­line from China as it is to buy a pair of shoes. “Right now we’re see­ing the emer­gence of a new class, that’s fen­tanyl-type opi­oids,” Dye’s boss, Jill Head, said. “Based on the struc­ture, there can be many, many more sub­sti­tu­tions on that mol­e­cule that we have not yet seen.” En­tre­pre­neur­ial chemists have been cre­at­ing de­signer al­ter­na­tives to cannabis, am­phet­a­mine, co­caine and Ec­stasy for years. But the new syn­thet­ics are far more lethal ; in some cases, an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill.

Mass spec­trom­e­ter

Dye has recom­mit­ted to ev­ery safety pro­to­col she was ever taught. One, safety glasses. Two, lab coat, but­toned. Three, pow­der-free dis­pos­able ni­trile gloves. Four, face mask. She placed an emer­gency nalox­one in­jec­tion kit - an an­ti­dote for opi­oid over­dose - on her lab bench. Just in case. Then she un­wrapped the ev­i­dence and pulled out a palm-sized bag­gie. She scooped up a dot of pow­der and gin­gerly placed it in a small vial. As she worked, she treated the ma­te­rial as if it were ra­dioac­tive. Af­ter trans­fer­ring a few drops of methanol into the vial, she clamped it shut and dropped it into a mass spec­trom­e­ter.

The ma­chine sucked the ev­i­dence through a cop­per-col­ored wire and bom­barded it with elec­trons to break it into small pieces. “Kind of like when you drop a puzzle,” Dye said. The re­sult­ing pat­tern of peaks is akin to a chem­i­cal fin­ger­print. Dye com­pared the re­sult with the lab’s li­brary of ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 known drugs. None matched. This was some­thing new. She and her col­leagues ran the ev­i­dence through a nu­clear magnetic res­o­nance spec­trom­e­ter to map the po­si­tion of dif­fer­ent atoms. Then they guessed. They bought a sam­ple of the com­pound they thought they had from a le­git­i­mate re­search chem­i­cal com­pany. On July 26, Dye ran that ref­er­ence stan­dard through the mass spec­trom­e­ter. The re­sult matched the ev­i­dence ex­actly. “It’s 4-flu­o­roisobu­tyrylfen­tanyl,” Dye said. Long be­fore Dye made her dis­cov­ery, Chi­nese ven­dors were of­fer­ing 4flu­o­roisobu­tyrylfen­tanyl - 4-FIBF for short - for sale. Shang­hai Xian­chong Chem­i­cal Co, a trad­ing com­pany with a spare of­fice in cen­tral Shang­hai, was one of them. Shang­hai Xian­chong started field­ing re­quests for 4-FIBF around April, said man­ager Jammi Gao, a clean-cut man in a white polo shirt. Gao said in an email he could sell 4-FIBF for $6,000 a kilo­gram, though later he de­nied ever bro­ker­ing a deal.

He re­fused to ship il­le­gal drugs, but 4FIBF is so new to the street it is not a con­trolled sub­stance in ei­ther the US or China. Back in the lab, Dye peeled off her gloves. She didn’t know users were warning each other not to over­dose chas­ing a heroin high that never kicked in with 4FIBF. She didn’t know about the dos­ing sched­ules ad­dicts had al­ready worked out. And she didn’t know that 4-FIBF gave some peo­ple sat­is­fy­ing, sleep-throughthe-night re­sults when in­serted up their rec­tum. Dye would go home, safe, to her dog. Maybe to­mor­row she would find the next new thing in an ev­i­dence bag on her bench. But else­where, all across Amer­ica, peo­ple would not make it through the night. By the time Dye fin­ished work the next day, an­other 90 Amer­i­cans would be dead of opi­oid over­doses.

—AP Pho­tos

VIR­GINIA: In this photo, Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion (DEA) Foren­sic Chemist Emily Dye, pre­pares a con­trol ref­er­ence sam­ple of fen­tanyl at the DEA’s Spe­cial Test­ing and Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory in Ster­ling, Vir­ginia.

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