WVU researcher heading up study on value of fentanyl test strips as opioid overdose prevention strategy


UPDATE (AUGUST 20, 2020 4:42 p.m.):

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A West Virginia University researcher will co-lead a study to learn more about the off-label use of rapid response fentanyl test strips as an opioid overdose prevention strategy.

Woman with grey hair, gold earrings, white blazer jacket and black top.
Dr. Judith Feinberg, a Behavioral Medicine & Psychiatry professor with the School of Medicine (WVU Photo)

“With the knowledge from this study, we will be able to provide better guidance to drug users and the agencies and organizations who serve them in order to save lives,” said Dr. Judith Feinberg, a Behavioral Medicine & Psychiatry professor with the School of Medicine.

The study is being funded by a $657,648 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, according to a WVU press release.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80–100 times stronger than morphine, has become an additive to heroin and other street drugs as a way to increase its potency, WVU explained. Many users who purchase heroin and other drugs do not know when it is laced with fentanyl, which often results in overdose deaths.

Fentanyl test strips are being used to detect if drugs have any trace of fentanyl. Knowing that a drug contains fentanyl can help prevent overdoses by allowing users to modify their behavior, such as not using the drug, doing a test dose first, using the drug with others who have naloxone or who can call 911 in case of an overdose or changing their purchasing behaviors, the release states. However, WVU said some people may prefer fentanyl and may use the test strips to verify their purchases.

“What we learn from this will help harm reduction programs that are educating their clients and hopefully we will significantly reduce the overdose rate due to fentanyl,” Feinberg said. ” Most overdose deaths now are in fact due to fentanyl, they are not due to heroin or other substances and this is really important of course for people whose substance abuse disorder is of stimulants, like cocaine or methamphetamine. Because they will have no tolerance for an opioid, people who have opioid use disorder will have some tolerance to fentanyl because they’ve probably been introduced to fentanyl in their drug supply already. The people who do not look for opioids and have absolutely no tolerance, if there’s fentanyl in their cocaine or methamphetamine then they are really at significant risk of overdosing and dying if exposed to fentanyl.”

Although fentanyl test strips have become increasingly popular among drug users, there is little known about how and why people use them, the school explained. The NIH-funded study will use surveys and one-on-one interviews to try to understand how the availability of fentanyl test strips affects drug use. The study will also help researchers better understand the risks that people who inject drugs are or are not willing to take.

“We are really hoping that ultimately that we have an impact on the overdose rate, on the overdose death rate,” Feinberg said. “And we want to learn how we can teach people to avoid these problems and learn how their behaviors are already impacting their situations for better or for worse. That’s the goal of this research project.”

Funding for the study by the NIH began July 1 and will conclude June 30, 2021.

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