Tackling an epidemic in the midst of a pandemic: UAlberta students propose a solution to combat the opioid crisis.

In hopes of reducing fentanyl-related deaths, UAlberta Students have proposed a much-needed technology to test fentanyl at the street level.

Saba Al Hammouri - 04 June 2020

Since 2016, there have been 14,000 deaths attributed to opioid overdoses in Canada. 94% of these deaths were accidental.

Aware of the devastation that the opioid crisis was bringing to communities, along with the lack of reliable testing methods for fentanyl on the street level, undergraduate students from the Faculty of Science, Simran Dhillon, Adarsh Badesha, and Ajaypartap Gill, decided to take things into their own hands.

"The widespread nature of this crisis raises concern for all citizens within the community. All individuals are at risk of becoming victims of the opioid crisis, whether it is directly or indirectly," explains Simran. "As members of our community, we want[ed] to work together to create a better and safer space for all individuals whose health and well-being may be at risk."

Fueled by the desire to make a difference, the team came together to propose a solution called FentaGone, a 1mL syringe that allows users to gain feedback on whether the drug in use contains fentanyl.

FentaGone addresses some of the key issues surrounding the current testing that is available at the street level. As the team explains, while standalone fentanyl strips are a great technology, they require users to sacrifice some of their drugs for testing. FentaGone, on the other hand, doesn't disrupt the user's routine.

"By integrating fentanyl strips not only are we gaining access to a technology that has the highest sensitivity and specificity for fentanyl, but we also address the major limitation of not accounting for the ritualistic nature of drug use," explains Ajaypartap.

The team had spent some time working on the idea, but the catalyst that pushed them to turn their idea into a reality was the opportunity to present at the World's Challenge Challenge.

For the past four years, the University of Alberta International has hosted the World's Challenge Challenge (WCC), encouraging students from across campus to come together to pitch ideas aimed at solving global issues that pertain to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) outlined by the United Nations.

The WCC gives students the opportunity to showcase their ingenuity and creativity, and students have always stepped up to the challenge. This year, more so than others, teams had to demonstrate not only their innovativeness but also their resiliency and adaptability.

Due to COVID-19, the WCC, like many other events, had to be moved online. This move meant that students who had planned their presentations with an audience in mind now had to rethink their strategy. The FentaGone team admits, the move online did throw quite the curveball their way.

"We were faced with multiple unforeseen obstacles due to the COVID-19 pandemic," explains Adarsh. "The largest challenge we faced was being able to accurately convey our product to the judges. We had spent over 20 minutes the night before just practicing different angles to try and focus our prototype on camera."

Despite these challenges, the team was able to do their product justice, and the judges were impressed by their remarkable product. As a result, FentaGone, which is aligned with SDG 3, quality health and well being, was awarded first place.

Having invested so much time and effort into this project, winning the WCC felt like a surreal experience. With the win under their belt and the $10,000 prize in hand, the team is one step closer to fulfilling their goal.

The team says they are ready to hit the ground running on the production and trial of their product. They hope to collaborate with community partners already addressing the opioid crisis, including Safe Injection Sites.

"The sooner we are able to get our production under control and prove the validity of the product, the faster we can get this rolling to the streets, and begin to combat the opioid crisis and start saving vulnerable lives," concludes Adarsh.