Its not uncommon for David DiGregorio and his team to get called in when first responders find a substance they cant identify at a scene. A suspicious white powder in the restroom of a fast-food restaurant, for instance, has triggered a request for DiGregorio, the director of hazardous materials emergency response for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services. Officials on the scene wanted to know: Is it safe to allow other patrons into that bathroom? If the powder contained trace levels of fentanyl, an opioid thats normally cut into other drugs or filler powders, the team wouldnt have been able to detect it before November of last year. Thats when the hazmat responders got miniature mass spectrometers from 908 Devices, a miniature mass spec company based in Boston. Theyve provided feedback to the company to improve the libraries and sampling techniques used in its instruments for detecting fentanyl and its analogues. Misuse of fentanyl, a legal and potent painkiller, is a major contributor to the ongoing opioid epidemic. Before November, DiGregorio and his team had been investigating whether technologies like Raman spectroscopy or Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) would be able to detect fentanyl at a scene. They found that those techniques workedif there was plenty of fentanyl present. The issue, DiGregorio says, is that any dealers worth their salt are not going to have 15 or 20% fentanyl in their product; it would kill everyone they deal to. DiGregorios teams are more likely to see powders that are 2% fentanyl. The rest is usually a cutting agent such as lactose or mannitol. If we find fentanyl with Raman or FTIR, we know its a high concentration, maybe even pure, DiGregorio says. If they detect nothing but the cutting agent with those methods, they still dont know whether fentanyl is there because its spectrum can be hidden in that of the cutting agent. With the new miniature mass specs, DiGregorio and his team can see even trace amounts of fentanyl. DiGregorios teams have 13 of the miniature mass specs made by 908. Each instrument consists of an array of ion-trap mass analysers. The devices continuously acquire mass spectra. Users dont see the spectra. If a target compound is detected, the device will alert its user. Team members sample suspicious powders using swabs held in place at the inlet of the instrument, where the sample is volatilised and sucked into the instrument. The miniature mass spec is so sensitive that the technicians often need to take swabs of swabs, sometimes repeating the swabbing process as many as four times, to avoid overwhelming the instrument. If DiGregorios team gets a hit, the instrument, which contains a library of the spectra of fentanyl and its various analogues, identifies which analogue is present. One improvement DiGregorio would like is for the instrument to give him an alert on the basis of fentanyls molecular scaffold rather than specific analogues. If we could see the fentanyl backbone, that would be phenomenal, he says, because drug designers can easily make new analogues of fentanyl that the instrument might not recognise. Even as he pushes 908 for improvements, DiGregorio is happy to be able to detect low concentrations of fentanyl in the field. It really is a game changer.
Chemical & Engineering News, 28 May 2018 ; http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news