Across Canada, between January 2016 and December 2022, 36,442 people died from opioid toxicity with the 2022 rate averaging 20 deaths per day. During the early pandemic, more British Columbians died of overdose due to toxic street drugs than due to COVID-19. The harm caused by contaminated drugs continues to be BC’s leading cause of unnatural death.

Highly potent substances like carfentanil can be lethal even in small amounts, so accurately detecting drug contamination is critical but challenging via current methods. This challenge motivated a science team led by Dr. Jason Hein, associate professor at UBC chemistry, to build automation into drug checking analysis using robotics.

Hein’s doctoral student Sara Guzman came to the project after working for the BC Centre on Substance Use drug checking pilot project, where she used Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) at harm reduction sites like Insite in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Guzman later moved to a job testing drugs at Health Canada. There she grew concerned about wait times for drug analysis of three weeks to 10 months.

At Health Canada, Guzman had access to high level analytic technologies like Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (UPLC-MS) and high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) –“basically anything that I needed to answer the question ‘what is in those samples?’” says Guzman. At point of care in the community, methodologies typically used are FTIR and immunoassay test strips. There are limitations to both. “The FTIR cannot detect more than five compounds or substances that are present [in proportions of] under 5%,” she says. In street drugs, highly potent opioids and benzodiazepines — along with a range of other contaminants — are often present at quantities below 5%.

As for test strips – like a pregnancy test that gives you a yes or no – these are useful for checking if a sample has fentanil, explains Hein. But such tests are usually calibrated to be very sensitive, giving an example of why that’s problematic. “If you take out your average dollar bill, it’s going to have cocaine on it,” says Hein. “It’s everywhere.” People get desensitized to test strip results, he explains, because according to those tests, everything is bad.

“Being a scientist, I understood the limitations of the technology that we were using, and I knew that we could do better,” Guzman says. With a toxic, unregulated drug supply you need to know not only what’s present, but also exactly how much.

In industry, High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) is the standard to determine “yes you made what you want,” says Hein. It’s a technique that enables separation and identification of each component. The problem is HPLC is big, unwieldy and requires specific expertise. “It’s not something you could just put on site to be used by a non-expert,” Hein says. Drug companies have an analytical chemist running these tests full time.

Hein wanted to develop a robotic stand-in with this expertise. The vision was to build a mini-HPLC; a field-deployable robot capable of doing everything from drug sample preparation to testing to delivering results. The team spent nine months developing it with collaborators.

“We’re still in prototype phase,” notes Hein, “but it has a lot of promise.” They’ve reduced the size of a more traditional HPLC — about the size of an office printer, to something more portable — about the size of a shoe box.

The team was invited to attend the Shambhala Music Festival in Salmo, northern BC, where they did the first field trials, testing concert-goers’ drug samples. The robot didn’t work perfectly “but we learned a lot,” says Hein. Hurdles like keeping dust out of the machine when deployed in the field is a future challenge to overcome.

The team is currently doing more internal testing and validation. In the near future, Hein hopes to get analysis and response time down to 24 hours, with the eventual goal of completing sample analysis within ten minutes.

Now the team has a drop box at UBC where users can drop off samples of any substance for free testing. The team hopes that anonymous, accessible drug checking services, deployed more widely, could help save lives.

Jaime Arredondo at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, whose research investigates drug checking technology but is not involved in the UBC work, says it’s extremely important to continue supporting this kind of research and have the technology be accessible for a broader set of community settings, with less reliance on government laboratories. “We need new tools that can detect more substances in a simpler way,” but quickly and accurately, he says. “The machine that they are working on could be a game changer in the coming years.”