Swortwood Developing Lab Test for Synthetic Opioids

Madeleine Swortwood

Synthetic Opioids

Madeleine Swortwood is developing a test to identify and quantify synthetic opioids in saliva for toxicology labs.

With the nation in the midst of an opioid pandemic and more synthetic drugs flooding the market, an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science is researching a new method to detect these synthetic substances in death and criminal investigations.

Madeleine Swortwood, Ph.D., is developing a testing method to identify four synthetic opioids in toxicology labs using saliva. These drugs, readily found on the internet, mimic the effects of morphine, fentanyl, or prescription pain pills, but are much more potent. One of these synthetic drugs – U-477700 – was temporarily banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration in November after it was implicated in 46 deaths in New York and North Carolina and identified in 88 crime labs across the country.

“Synthetic opioids can be hundreds or thousands of times more potent than heroin and can produce severe intoxication and even fatalities when abused, especially when cut into heroin unbeknownst to the user,” said Swortwood. “While heroin and opioid abuse is common, synthetic opioid use has risen dramatically, causing a public safety concern.”

Swortwood was awarded a $15,000 enhancement grant from Sam Houston State University to develop a method using saliva, a convenient sample source that would allow testing for multiple drugs from a single specimen. The method is proposed for use in a federal research project to detect synthetic opioid use among prisoners, arrestees, and those suspected of driving under the influence.

“Saliva in really easy to collect,” said Swortwood. “Unlike a blood sample, it does not require a nurse to draw it. There are also privacy issues for the collection of urine. This method uses a swab to collect one milliliter of saliva, which along with the buffer provides four milliliters for testing. These samples could be tested on various types of machines and instruments.”

This method could help save time and money in the laboratory by allowing multiple drugs to be tested using a single sample, and by providing greater flexibility in testing by using saliva. The method also could be used for workplace testing and drug treatment programs. Synthetic opioids often are used as an alternative to heroin or prescription drugs to avoid detection, Swortwood said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate for synthetic opioids other than methadone increased by 72 percent from 2014 to 2015. In November, the DEA placed a temporary emergency ban on one of those, citing an “imminent threat to public health and safety.” The drug was found in powder and pill form and mimicked prescription pills or was added to heroin and fentanyl. In addition to testing for this substance, the test will target similar substances as individual look for alternative to the banned drug.

Unlike heroin, which is derived from the poppy plant, synthetic opioids are manufactured. They originally were developed in pharmaceutical labs as a possible alternative to morphine, but later abandoned. They now are manufactured illegally in China, Swortwood said.

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