UNC researchers propose a solution to detect and issue warnings about contaminated illicit drugs


With a new grant, Nabarun Dasgupta ’13 (Ph.D.), Gillings Innovation Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health and senior scientist at UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, will work with colleagues from Carolina to develop systems to detect and issue public warnings about dangerous adulterants in illicit drugs.

Funding from the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts, or FORE, will support its work to develop processes and guidelines for chemical drug testing as well as systems to alert the public to potential dangers -; an approach he calls “underutilized”.

Drug control is an essential public health response to new psychoactive substances and dangerous adulterants. Our team brings together advertising, epidemiology and chemistry to generate timely data to reduce overdose deaths.”


Nabarun Dasgupta ’13 (Ph.D.), Gillings Innovation Fellow, UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health

Punitive drug policies have coincided with an escalation of the opioid and overdose crisis, but growing evidence points to the superior effectiveness of a harm reduction approach that shields drug users from the worst problems. of health rather than punishing them. This approach also provides a platform to connect people to other services, such as needle exchange or treatment for substance use disorders. The drug verification work is co-led by Mary Figgatt, a doctoral candidate in the UNC Gillings Department of Epidemiology, and the Chemistry Department’s Core Laboratory. Using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry equipment, the Core Laboratory worked with the Dasgupta team for a year and a half to develop new methods to stay ahead of the ever-changing drug supply in North Carolina.

Together, they will work with seven community-based harm reduction programs from across North Carolina, to conduct the first-ever public health-focused street drug assessment, supported by sophisticated machine learning techniques. Dasgupta insists on the urgency of this work.

“It’s too late to help people make changes by the time they’re dying of an overdose,” he said. “We need new immediate solutions.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has masked a worsening opioid overdose epidemic. The National Center for Health Statistics recorded more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021. Although projections indicate that this number will continue to rise, the problem is much larger than even this figure suggests.

Many people who use drugs are hospitalized and treated for illicit drug-related conditions that are contaminated with other substances, including drugs stronger than those the buyer intends to use. A contaminated drug supply can contribute to both morbidity and mortality.

“We’ve had calls from doctors across the state with complex atypical cases of drug-related harm,” Dasgupta said. “With our understanding of what is actually in illicit drugs, we have been able to help inform clinical care.”

The team plans to publish open-source chemistry lab protocols that will allow other university labs to test their local drug supply. Chemical knowledge about the drug supply must be returned to people who use drugs so they can make informed decisions to protect their health, Dasgupta and Figgatt recently wrote in a commentary for the American Journal of Epidemiology. They also work closely with the North Carolina Survivors Union in Greensboro.

All of this work aligns with FORE’s recently announced innovation agenda, which has three pillars: education and training to address stigma, supporting the transition from treatment to recovery, and generating timely and usable, provided by Dasgupta research. A grant totaling nearly $600,000 will support this research.

To ensure the data is actionable, the study team includes Allison Lazard, E. Reese Felts Jr. Distinguished Associate Professor at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

“The FORE Innovation Program grant will help us develop ways to provide timely and actionable warnings about opioids and stimulants. Our hope is to promote positive behavior and avoid risk-seeking,” said Lazard. . “Carolina is a research university that fosters interdisciplinary discovery. I am excited to work with Nabarun Dasgupta at the Carolina Opioid Data Lab to bring innovative evidence-based approaches to health communication to tackling some of the most difficult aspects of the opioid overdose crisis.”

The Opioid Data Lab is a collaborative effort of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Florida that centers the patient experience on studying issues related to pain management, harm reduction and addiction treatment.

Unfortunately, “dangerous drug” warnings can have unintended harmful consequences if they lead people to believe that a drug is particularly potent; which some may perceive as an advantage. Much of Dasgupta and Lazard’s work with the lab has focused on effective health communication using illustrations as well as text and other conventional strategies, and they will use this experience to create effective health warnings. drugs that avoid potential pitfalls. Working with artists across the country, they will create an open source library of hand-drawn illustrations for drug warning posters and social media.

“Combining new data collection with cutting-edge communications guidance, we offer a complete solution,” Dasgupta said. “These techniques allow people who use drugs to make informed choices and reduce harm.”

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