How DHS and a National Lab Aim to Advance First Responders’ Drug Detection

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As opioid abuse rises, government officials are engaging with states and industry to improve tech used to spot narcotics.

First responders are working with experts from the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate and the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to improve the rapid field detection of synthetic opioids and other drugs.

This work is unfolding as the U.S. confronts a serious opioid epidemic that’s worsened over the COVID-19 era. More than an estimated 130 people die a day from overdoses associated with such narcotics.

“I mean, I've seen firsthand the damage done. I've witnessed the loss of an entire family—an entire generation—to addiction. The collaborations with S&T and other federal partners are critical,” Ohio’s Newtown Police Department Chief Col. Thomas Synan recently explained. “The work that you are all doing, the work that we're doing—and that connection on the street—it's so important because it literally translates to lives being saved in our communities.”

Synan joined government officials to detail this two-phase effort during a panel that was part of DHS S&T’s Whole-of-Government Virtual Research and Development Showcase

That four-part series unfolded over the last few months highlighting ongoing federal research efforts—and work to move that research from the lab to the real world. The final panels of the series, which honed in on breaking barriers in public-private collaboration, were released this week. Other topics discussed include pinpointing public health threats via wastewater surveillance, preparing for the next pandemic and more.

“The showcase was designed to highlight how the results of government-funded research and development efforts are ultimately used in real-world operational practice,” DHS S&T Spokesperson John Verrico told Nextgov. He moderated the conversation centered on cooperative responses to the opioid-centered public health crisis, which also involved the Ohio-based police chief, two other officials from S&T and one from the Washington-based national lab.

S&T Program Manager Rosanna Anderson set the stage for that chat, noting that “first responders and other frontline operators depend on accurate and sensitive field detection equipment to detect illicit drugs, including highly potent opioids like Fentanyl,” while on the frontline. 

They turn to robust threat libraries of chemical signatures to identify specific drugs.

“A threat library is a collection or database of chemical spectra—in this case for various opioids and other drugs,” Anderson told Nextgov in an email Tuesday. Much like fingerprints, each spectra is unique to the chemical or drug. A detection device will analyze the spectrum from a sample and match it to a spectrum that is in the library—so the bigger the database, the greater chance of correctly identifying the substance in question.

DHS and other responders turn to an array of detection equipment, such as paper-based, colorimetric kits that detect substances based on a color change caused by chemical reaction; mass spectrometry that detects them based on the mass of the chemical; and Raman spectroscopy that detects them based on how a chemical interacts with light, Anderson explained. Each option has advantages and limitations. However, she noted, right now limited reliable information exists regarding how well those systems perform—especially against diluted Fentanyl and Fentanyl analogs, or other drugs designed to mimic its pharmacological effects. 

So, for this effort, S&T and national lab officials are collaborating with industry, state and federal partners to analyze the challenges associated with opioid detection. Those involved established what she called standardized, repeatable guidance for testing and best practices for operational use, with consideration of the evolving threats and advancing technology. 

“The standards-setting work was important to establish clear, repeatable guidelines for testing, sample collection, and use of each type of equipment to ensure that the end-user can have confidence in the performance of his or her system. We wanted to cover the variety of commonly used, commercially available equipment so that regardless of an agency’s choice of equipment—which may be driven by mission needs—their technology would be captured under this uniform standard,” Anderson noted. “These standards also inform manufacturers on the expectations of end-users—and can drive their development efforts to meet the highest tier of detection standards.”

S&T is collaborating with 15 manufacturers through CRADAs, or cooperative research and development agreements, to collect data and test 20 different instruments for the first and second phases of this pursuit. Vendors involved agreed to complete performance assessments of their equipment using those standards developed by DHS S&T in the process. The directorate’s Standards Executive, Phil Mattson, also provided further context on the project during the showcase. He argued that this work presents an example of how standards can help to enable the use of technology-based capabilities. 

After completing those testing and material standards, the directorate formally initiated this multi-phase effort with the national lab. The work is currently in the first phase, which is set to run through September 2022. 

Researchers at PNNL are steering the library upgrades.

“We're measuring these extremely toxic hazardous substances like Fentanyl and Carfentanil, adding them to the vendor libraries. The vendors then agreed to push those out for free,” PNNL’s Project Manager for Opioids Standards and Equipment Testing, Richard Ozanich, explained during the panel. “This gives a greater capability to responders.”

Adding context via email, Anderson said this initial work involves collecting data on roughly 50 Drug Enforcement Administration-controlled novel and emerging synthetic drugs. This data will be provided to equipment manufacturers to then include in their libraries. 

“Manufacturers will also be able to update and tweak their on-board algorithms based on their expanded library,” she noted.

During the second phase of the effort, revamped devices from the first phase will be analyzed based on developed standards specifications. 

“In the end, we will publish the full test reports in a sort of ‘consumer reports’ type of document,” Anderson said. “This will be a handy reference to inform procurement decisions—with validated test data to support the purchase of the best of breed equipment across the various technologies.”

Officials ultimately intend to provide the private sector with an opportunity to expand their offerings and boost their products. Simultaneously, the government gets a chance to assess the performance of various handheld technology-based devices and obtain useful reference data.

“Being able to identify the Fentanyl analogs and other synthetic drugs and having that library that catalogs it allows us to develop plans and be more flexible in our response, while keeping first responders more safe,” Synan added during the panel.

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