Federal lab works on database to identify fentanyl analogs | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

Federal lab works on database to identify fentanyl analogs

August 8, 2018
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
| Reprints

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal government laboratory that is part of the Department of Commerce, is working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and German law enforcement on a pilot for a website where forensic chemists can share data on drug analogs, with the goal of identifying the many analogs of fentanyl.

Called the Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Data Hub, the database will be on a website where the chemical structures of drug analogs are filed. These structures are the ways in which drugs are analyzed in forensic laboratories involved in law enforcement work.

Aaron Urbas, PhD, the NIST research chemist leading the project, explains to Behavioral Healthcare Executive that people testing drugs need to know what they’re looking for. Urbas describes NIST as a “small government laboratory” with a mission to develop standards and technology.

A few groups are working on generating reference data (analytical information from a particular lab technique for a particular drug) for fentanyl, Urbas says. Most of the NIST's efforts are related to seized drugs.

Theoretically, there could be an unlimited number of fentanyl analogs, says Urbas. “At the moment there might be a dozen currently being encountered in the United States,” he says.

Drug users are hoping to avoid illicit fentanyl, which is so strong that it leads to overdose and death, as well as synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, and other highly dangerous drugs.

NIST and the DEA are working with the German police on the database because novel psychoactive substances show up all over the world, says Urbas. “A lot of labs are doing elucidations of new compounds—figuring out what the new molecules are,” he says. “The molecule itself will look a lot like fentanyl, but somewhere on the molecule they’ll make a little change,” Urbas says. “When you look at the fingerprints from all the different analytic techniques, you might find that it looks similar.”

While underground chemists want to increase drug potency, by changing the fingerprint to make the drug stronger, the risk to users is great.

The database was designed so that expert labs could share data, “and hopefully get the fingerprints out there faster,” Urbas says. The collaborator with the German police is working to coordinate efforts with Customs as well, he says.

Recent change in law

One longstanding problem for law enforcement has been the possibility of clandestine manufacturers “designing” different fentanyl analogs to avoid those that already were declared illegal on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA this year placed in Schedule I “all fentanyl-related substances known and yet to be known,” DEA spokesperson Katherine Pfaff said in an e-mail to Behavioral Healthcare Executive (for the regulation, click here). “This means that illicit drug manufacturers can no longer circumvent the law by creating new analogs,” said Pfaff.

Before the DEA made these changes, the analog laws were too limited for law enforcement to be able to use, says Urbas. Under those laws, it was not enough to show that the structure of an unscheduled fentanyl analog was similar to that of a scheduled one. “But illicit fentanyl is so toxic and is causing so much devastation, that in February the DEA made all fentanyl drugs—except for medical fentanyl—illegal based on the structure,” he says.

But forensic chemists still need to identify them. The problem is that as new compounds are found, the spectra—the signature of the drug on a mass spectrometer—aren’t necessarily in the libraries of forensic chemists yet, says Urbas.

After identifying drug evidence with a mass spectrometer, forensic chemists search law enforcement databases for the signature, but for new drugs, it is more difficult to identify. When it is found, this is added to the database so it can be more easily identified. This can take years, with a lot of hunting and false trails. But it is hoped that the NPS Data Hub will make it easier for experts to collaborate.

A paper on this subject, “NPS Data Hub: A web-based community driven analytical data repository for new psychoactive substances,” was recently published in Forensic Chemistry.

How is the database going to prevent overdoses? “This is more about the detection of compounds,” responds Urbas. “I can’t say that this is going to prevent things from being sold on the street. Knowing what a compound is doesn’t prevent someone from dying. It may shorten the time it takes before labs that seize the drugs at the border can identify a new compound. I fully understand that is certainly only one part of the problem.”



The Summits for Clinical Excellence bring together thought leaders on cutting-edge topics in multi-day national and regional conferences. Summits on mindfulness, trauma, process addiction, and shame appeal particularly to private practice behavioral healthcare professionals. Other Summits address the national opioid crisis from a regional perspective and engage a diverse group of stakeholders.

November 8-9, 2018 New England - The Opioid Crisis: Strategies for Treatment and Recovery