Western gets nearly $2M to roll out drug checking tech at supervised consumption sites

Thanks to a nearly $2 million federal grant, 10 safe-spend locations across Canada, including one in London, could use new drug-checking technology to tell drug users what their drugs actually contain.

Mental Health and Addiction Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Friday the allocation of $1,995,775 to deploy the sophisticated tabletop device at sites in Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. She used Western University as the backdrop for her announcement, a fitting initiative for new technology development with the help of a tertiary institution professor.

Chemistry professor and Raman spectroscopy expert François Lagugné-Labarthet teamed up with SCATR Inc., a startup founded by Western graduate Ari Forman and Toronto Metropolitan University graduate Alex Boukin, to come up with a faster way to analyze street drugs without destroying the sample. They landed on an unassuming black cube, no larger than two shoeboxes, that uses Raman spectroscopy—a form of analysis of how light interacts with chemical bonds within a material—to determine a substance’s molecular composition and chemical structure . From this, a person will be able to know what potentially dangerous fillers or other drugs, such as fentanyl analogs, may be in the substance they plan to consume.

Chemistry professor Francois Lagugné-Labarthet (left) with SCATR Inc., founders Ari Forman (middle) and Alex Boukin. Photo by Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications

“The devastating effects of the opioid crisis are in the news almost every day, and the death toll is staggering,” he said. “We want to help find solutions to reduce these numbers,” Lagugné-Labarthet said.

Workers at the consumer site simply insert a small sample of the user’s drug into the device and learn exactly what’s in it in less than 15 minutes. Knowing this knowledge will enable those who use the drug in the facility to make informed decisions about its use.

“We continue to see drug overdoses and people are experiencing ongoing healthcare challenges due to the toxic drug supply in our communities,” said Sonja Burke, Director of Harm Reduction Services at the Regional HIV-AIDS Connection, a permanent HIV/AIDS link in London. Consumer site Carepoint. “So, this is really a game changer. It will give drug users a way to get more information and enable them to make decisions.”

Data from devices that are networked together and utilize powerful machine learning algorithms can also be used to flag specific samples that have dangerous properties or cause adverse reactions. As part of the pilot project, it will also be necessary to track whether the ingredients in the drug are as expected, and whether the people who examined the samples changed their behavior by reducing their dose or choosing not to use it after learning about its ingredients.

“What’s unique about our technology is that it was designed from the ground up with the sole purpose of harm reduction, and the features were developed based on feedback from people with lived experience of drug use,” Forman said.

The Drug Screening Pilot Project is one of 42 innovative community-led projects selected to share more than $37 million in funding from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addiction Program.

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