Tox Tuesday: U-47700

November 01, 2016

Part of the deadly chemical cocktail that killed Prince last summer included a chemical known as U-47700, a relatively new synthetic opioid, eight times stronger than morphine. Also known as “pink” or “pinky,” the designer drug is part of a family of powerful painkillers including carfentanil, furanyl and fentanyl and according to reports, has been responsible for at least 80 other deaths in the past nine months.

Now banned in at least a dozen states, U-47700 was previously unknown and therefore not registered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning it could legally be bought and sold. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently issued a statement notifying the public of its intent to temporarily classify the drug as a Schedule I substance. This classification means the drug has a high potential for abuse, no medical application in the U.S. and would allow law enforcement to penalize those caught buying, selling or using the drug.

According to one article, U-47700 was originally created in a lab by a well-known pharmaceutical giant. The scientist responsible for its creation patented the drug in 1976 after a round of animal testing. At the time, it was noted that the new opioid blend was more potent that morphine but with supposedly less addictive potential. Because of this, the drug was intended to treat severe pain associated with cancer, surgery, or injury, but was never tested on humans and ended up being relegated to research. The patent remained publicly available with detailed instructions on how to produce the drug — giving the opportunity for drug labs in China and elsewhere the ability to make and sell batches of the drug online.

“This stuff is so powerful that if you touch it, you could go into cardiac arrest,” Park City, Utah, Police Chief, Wade Carpenter said in a recent article. “The problem is if you have a credit card and a cell phone, you have access to it.”

That was exactly the case in a recent investigation into the overdoses of two 13-year-old boys from Park City who were found dead after taking U-47700 in September. Investigators believe the two decided to try the drug after discussing it on several social media and buying the substance online from a manufacturer in China.

Like other opioids such as oxycodone or heroin, U-47700 is said to cause a feeling of euphoric relaxation. The analgesic sedates users while also causing severe respiratory depression. It was described by one user as a "non-overbearing rushes of comfort, warmth, and laziness" and according to the article is most likely abused by those who also abuse prescription painkillers or use heroin.

U-47700 is reported as white in color and looks similar to baby powder, but can also be in liquid form — usually in dropper bottles or empty nasal inhalers. While it is known to be about eight times stronger than morphine, another article explains that is only if it’s concocted according to its original specifications. Variations occur if the manufacturer mixes it with other chemicals or synthetic opioids, creating a combination that is deadly in a very small amount.

While forensic labs and the DEA are starting to catch up to U-47700, one expert explains that the bans unfortunately do not entirely address the problem. Chemists can slightly tweak the compounds of the drug and release a new substance that can stay on the market for months before states recognize it and impose a new ban.

“The hardest part is when something new comes up, and no one in the country or world has seen it in a forensic setting yet and trying to decide what that actual structure or drug is,” Bryan Holden, senior forensic scientist with the Utah Department of Public Safety said in an article. “Sometimes we have had cases where the substance sat for months and months — no one had ever seen it before, and until someone else sees it or manufactures it then we kind of know what it is.”

Drug users, however, are not the only ones in danger, as police and other members of law enforcement also need to be extremely careful when dealing with such a potent substance.

“I worry about the field officers out there, I worry a lot about the K9s that are sniffing around in that stuff as part of their job,” said Dr. Jennifer Plumb with the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics.

According to the article, just three grains of the substance touching skin can cause a person to overdose and even less could affect a 90-pound dog. This makes police work very difficult for everyone involved as they have to be very careful when searching areas where drugs such as U-47700 could be present.

Regardless of whether it’s an overdose situation involving a drug user, police officer or police dog, naloxone, an opioid antagonist, can reverse an opioid overdose by counteracting life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system. This allows an overdose victim to breathe normally after the drug is injected. For this reason, naloxone is now carried by many police departments and emergency response crews.

"With these new synthetic drugs these kids are taking, they have no idea what they're popping in their mouths," one county coroner said. "They could get a little amount, or a fatal dose. … It's always a public safety issue. You have to be careful.

For more information, click here.

Neogen's forensic drug detection immunoassays includes over 100 ELISA test kits to screen over 300 drugs and metabolites, including various synthetic opioids, in a wide range of forensic samples including hair, whole blood, urine, oral fluid and others. For more information, click here.

Category: Toxicology