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Forensic Science

Detecting traces of fentanyl in the field

Mini mass spec can detect lower opioid levels than other methods

by Celia Henry Arnaud
May 28, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 22


Photo of 908 Devices' MX908 with an alarm for fentanyl on the screen.
Credit: 908 Devices
This miniature mass spec has detected fentanyl.

It’s not uncommon for David DiGregorio and his team to get called in when first responders find a substance they can’t 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 that’s normally cut into other drugs or filler powders, the team wouldn’t have been able to detect it before November of last year. That’s when the hazmat responders got miniature mass spectrometers from 908 Devices, a miniature mass spec company based in Boston. They’ve provided feedback to the company to improve the libraries and sampling techniques used in its instruments for detecting fentanyl and its analogs.

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 worked—if 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.”

DiGregorio’s 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 it’s a high concentration, maybe even pure,” DiGregorio says. If they detect nothing but the cutting agent with those methods, they still don’t 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.

DiGregorio’s teams have 13 of the miniature mass specs made by 908. Each instrument consists of an array of ion-trap mass analyzers. The devices continuously acquire mass spectra. Users don’t 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 volatilized 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 DiGregorio’s team gets a hit, the instrument, which contains a library of the spectra of fentanyl and its various analogs, identifies which analog is present.

One improvement DiGregorio would like is for the instrument to give him an alert on the basis of fentanyl’s molecular scaffold rather than specific analogs. “If we could see the fentanyl backbone, that would be phenomenal,” he says, because drug designers can easily make new analogs of fentanyl that the instrument might not recognize.


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.”


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