VIU team on the cutting edge of better, more accurate drug testing

By Spencer Sterritt
September 25, 2018 - 5:26pm Updated: September 26, 2018 - 9:20am

VIU professor Chris Gill (far left) and his team Armin Saatchi, Gregory Vandergrift and Scott Borden are on the cutting edge of detection and analysis.Spencer Sterritt/NanaimoNewsNOW

NANAIMO — Many drug users know their supply is tainted by the lethal opioid fentanyl, but new tech being developed at VIU tells them just how dangerous the next dose of heroin or cocaine could be.

VIU professor Chris Gill and his team work with sensitive analysis machines known as mass spectrometers, which can take an incredibly small sample of a drug and accurately show within minutes what will actually end up inside a users' veins.


This is in contrast to fentanyl strips, which turn blue if a potent opioid is detected but can't show how much is present, or lab testing which can require several days to get results.

“Unfortunately, because the drug stream locally and in Canada is so tainted with these horrible substances, fentanyl and its analogues, testing positive isn't good enough,” Gill told NanaimoNewsNOW.

“You need to know how much is there because a slight contamination will test positive, as will a sample which will kill the user on the first try.”

Many current drug testing machines will also only recognize fentanyl if it makes up about five per cent of the sample. However, much less than five per cent can cause a fatal overdose. With the mass spectrometer tech Gill and his team work with, they can measure even the smallest amount of possibly deadly compounds in a drug sample.

Mobile versions of the equipment are used by their team in the field to study aspects of the environment and air quality, which gives Gill hope similar machines could be installed at Nanaimo's overdose prevention site and even taken right to drug users.

“We know how to do this in the environment, in a vehicle in the middle of the Fort McMurray wilderness. If we had money tomorrow, within six months we'd have a beta version in trial somewhere in Nanaimo or Victoria.”

Gill and his team spent the last year looking for grants to provide the several hundred thousands of dollars needed for the project.

Though they aren't financing the project, Island Health has thrown their support behind Gill and his team who are leading the way in this field of study.

Medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback said providing better, more immediate drug testing will help build trust with drug users and hopefully generate long-term impacts.

“Having a trusting relationship is a foundation to the sorts of therapy which would perhaps lead to living a substance-free life. And we're starting to get there with many individuals. There's lots more to do, but this is one more tool.”

Hasselback previously told NanaimoNewsNOW statistics show the number of people entering treatment for substance abuse is rising higher in Nanaimo than it is in the rest of the country. 

With mass spectrometers being used for many different types of testing and being a readily accepted science, Hasselback said adapting the equipment to help with the overdose crisis has significant ramifications for managing the drug supply in B.C.

“It's also kind of cool it's happening close to home,” he said.


[email protected]

On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit

SD68 teacher suspended for physically restraining 5-year-old girl