In August, VIU’s Applied Environmental Research Laboratory (AERL) sent a small team over to the Powell Street Getaway Harm Reduction Site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They used a groundbreaking drug detection technique which allowed them to see trace levels of different drugs within one sample. The technique is called paper spray mass spectrometry and it was the first time in the world that it was used to test drugs in a legitimate safe consumption site scenario. 

In British Columbia alone, there were 1514 reported deaths due to drug overdose in 2018. Fentanyl was detected in 87 percent of the cases. This disheartening reality probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many, but it clearly shows a growing need for our technology to continue advancing. This technique is extremely sensitive; more sensitive than any testing ever used on drugs at a safe consumption site. It takes about one minute and requires one milligram of substance to see accurate results. The team tested over 140 substances in two days. 

Scott Borden, Armin Saatchi, and Dr. Chris Gill played key roles in the technique’s development this summer. Borden received his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Biology from Thompson Rivers University. He is now in his third year of working towards a PhD. Saatchi is a VIU Bachelor of Science graduate and was a research assistant at the AERL this summer. Gill is a co-founder of the AERL and PhD supervisor. He spends countless hours applying for grants to support the AERL’s research. 

The AERL resides on the top floor of the Health and Sciences Building, on Nanaimo’s VIU campus. Saatchi reclines in an office chair in one of the new chemistry labs and explains the technique: “Paper spray mass spectrometry is an easy, rapid, and effective way to identify specific molecules from a variety of complex samples. A small piece of paper is cut to a sharp point, the sample spotted onto it, and hooked up to 4000 volts. This forces ions to shoot from the point and allows the machine to print out a list of quantitative components.”

Gill made the connection with Powell Street Getaway. He communicated with Health Canada for funding and organizing the logistics of bringing paper spray to the field for drug testing. 

“We demonstrated that the technique works two years ago, and now we’ve demonstrated that it works with real drugs, which we knew, but testing real drugs requires approval of Health Canada. It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s there for the right reasons,” Gill said.  

Saatchi gestured to the eight mass spectrometers spread across the lab, “If you look around me, the floors are polished concrete, we have a ventilation system, emergency equipment; this lab is a health and safety officer’s dream. Powell Street is not as well equipped. It’s an underfunded location that exists out of pure necessity, but it’s not exactly a chemistry lab. No one’s ever tried bringing technology this sophisticated into that environment.”

This summer, the research group received a new mass spectrometer on loan; the instrument was transported to Powell Street. Saatchi points to a sticker on the instrument to emphasize the serial number: 0001. “I’m sure they weren’t thrilled that their half a million dollar loaned instrument was being packed up to go on a boat, but at the same time, they gave it to us to use and this is how we chose to use it.”

Borden gave testament to the amazing opportunities he’s been exposed to with the AERL, specifically his time and efforts poured into the pilot trial at Powell Street Getaway. “One of the most notable things I experienced [there] was the dedication, patience, and compassion I observed from many of the front line workers who are dealing with these clients day in and day out. We quickly realized how much we needed to rely on them to properly relay information in a useful manner.” 

The importance of knowing what substance someone is consuming cannot be stressed enough. Borden said “In the case of street drugs, users are often rolling the dice, since dealers are modifying their supply with cheaper drugs that can give similar highs but cause lethal overdoses.” He recognized how much fentanyl and carfentanil have replaced heroin and how impactful the use of Narcan kits are with their ability to reverse the effect of an overdose. 

“One drug we encountered several times, etizolam, similar to Xanax, has been causing a spike of lethal overdoses in recent months due to the fact that naloxone is unable to reverse the effects. When encountering this drug our team was able to provide the user with this information … and some users even disposed of their drugs on site.”

a Thermo Scientific mass spectrometer sits on a table in a small corner of a lab

The loaned instrument from Thermo Scientific, serial number 0001

Borden grew up in British Columbia’s interior and has suffered the loss of numerous people from his high school, university, and community to the opioid crisis. “This is a technique that our team, as well as our industrial and public health collaborators, strongly believe can help reduce harm and overdoses in the ongoing opioid crisis that is occurring in many parts of the world, with British Columbia being one of the most severely impacted regions, globally.”

Borden pointed out that much of their time as scientists is spent in the lab doing important work, but they rarely see real-world results. “To immediately see the impact of our work was an encouraging and motivating experience in my career as a scientist and being able to use my PhD program to participate in one facet of the ongoing battle against opioid overdoses has become a point of pride.”

Saatchi opened up about the impact this crisis has had on him personally: “I’m no stranger to that lifestyle, and it meant a lot to be on the other side of that experience. It was important for me that I be part of this project. I arrived at VIU after two years of sobriety and now I’m almost six years.”

Saatchi spoke about the recovery community at VIU and how many of them are involved in the Fine Arts, where they have enriched their recovery process within that field. In the sciences he said, it can feel like there is less opportunity for that, so when he heard about this project, he jumped at it. “Nanaimo is not removed from this problem, it is very local and very real. I think it is fitting that an institution like VIU would contribute to a part of a solution,” he said.

The new chemistry major at VIU means a lot to the AERL. 

“Many students with a great background and passion for chemistry haven’t stayed here. Typically in a class like CHEM 212 we wouldn’t have more than 18 students; this year, we have 32. We nearly doubled our numbers overnight and now we can keep great students around,” Gill said. 

 Many students have gone on to work or continue studying at the AERL, but with these greater numbers they do need more funding to provide jobs for new graduates. “Science needs to have an outcome as well as a training aspect,” Gill said. 

The goal with this technique is that it can become smaller and easier. “It’s pretty easy now for science geeks, but we want a harm care reduction worker to be able to run it,” Gill said. 

Borden is currently writing a report for Health Canada that will, hopefully, secure additional funding for the AERL, which will allow them to improve portability and bring the technique to additional sites. 

“The need is there; hopefully the research and development keeps up with that growing need,” Saatchi said. “All I had to do was show up. If you show up, there will always be opportunities for those that want them.”

The AERL are experts in using this technique for drug checking and are currently a semi-finalist for Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge. Gill hopes to move on to be a finalist, which would mean $100,000 in funding. 

The AERL is expecting a small portable mass spectrometer to be donated to the lab this fall. They look forward to seeing how the technique continues to improve with the advanced technology.