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Developing life-saving drug opioid overdose diagnosis tools

Opioids were responsible for 12,000 overdoses last year in the UK alone

Dr Michael Cook and PhD student Niamh Haslett at the University of Hertfordshire are developing a novel animal-free ‘sensor’ for healthcare professionals to use in the field to rapidly diagnose opioid overdoses. This could lead to faster intervention and more human lives saved as well as ending the suffering of millions of animals.

The opioid epidemic

The terms ‘opiates’ and ‘opioids’ are often used interchangeably but opiates are naturally occurring compounds (originating from the opium poppy plant), while opioids are synthetic. Whilst incredibly useful for pain relief, for example, in end-of-life care or for cancer, these drugs are highly addictive and were responsible for 12,000 overdoses last year in the UK alone. The opioid epidemic is a major public health crisis. Detecting the type of drug present in someone’s body is vitally important so that a healthcare professional knows which treatment to give. Currently, these tests are performed by specialists and take place in a laboratory, using costly equipment.

Faster, cheaper and more accessible ways to detect opioids are urgently needed to save more lives.

Animals used for drug detection

Over 11.5 million animals worldwide are used for antibody production

Drug detection is normally carried out using antibodies. These are proteins that are produced by white blood cells in the body when it detects a foreign molecule, for example, a drug, bacteria or virus in the body. The antibody will seek out and stick to the invader rendering it ‘flagged for destruction’ and alerting other white blood cells to destroy it. Opioids are detected this way, using animal antibodies which bind specifically to the opioid.

The animals (usually rabbits, sheep, horses, goats, rats or mice) are repeatedly bled so that the levels of antibody can be monitored until enough has been produced within its body. The animal is then killed, and its blood collected so that the antibody can be extracted. Around 1 million animals are used for antibody production in Europe and over 11.5 million animals worldwide.

A solution

Niamh Haslett is a PhD student, working with Dr Michael Cook, at the University of Hertfordshire. She’s developing a ‘sensor’ to test for the presence of opioids in a patient without the need for these animal-derived antibodies. This would enable paramedics, nurses or doctors to determine an opioid overdose much more quickly, with immediate intervention, saving more lives. It would also help to end the suffering and killing of animals during the production of antibodies.

‘Computational techniques provide the foundations for this project and are incredibly useful tools in the quest to end animal and animal biomaterial use in scientific research. Over the first six months of this project, several experiments using different computer programs have been utilised to help identify a template for a chemical sensor that can detect common drugs of abuse known as opioids, like heroin and fentanyl. This work is the basis to achieving a fully realised and faster alternative to using animal-derived antibodies for drug detection in humans.’ – Niamh Haslett

PhD student – Niamh Haslett

Niamh is compiling a comprehensive database of opioids and then using computers to design and make a molecule or ‘host’ that will attach to as big a range of opioids as possible. She will then attach this ‘host’ to a ‘smart’ molecule, creating a ‘sensor’, which shows when an opioid has attached by transforming from a liquid to a thick gel. This would mean a paramedic on an emergency call could detect opioids on the spot. Without any specialist equipment, they could simply add a patient’s blood (or urine) to the sensor, shake it and see if a gel forms. This rapid, in the field intervention could save many more lives.

Impact of the research: benefits for humans and animals

This innovative animal free tool to detect opioids could be used to rapidly diagnose overdoses, leading to faster intervention and more lives saved. It would be more affordable than the existing laboratory analysis methods currently needed and is likely to be cheaper to produce on a large scale. It could also provide a blueprint for other researchers to use, ultimately leading to the replacement of antibodies used for drug testing and ending the suffering of millions of animals worldwide.


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