WMU’s Medical School tackling the opioid epidemic, finding ‘hot batches’

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 1,365 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, which is a significant increase from the 884 deaths the year before. These numbers have alarmed officials in West Michigan, including those at the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.

“It’s a concern for us from a community perspective,” said the school’s Director of Toxicology Prentiss Jones. “We’ve got to get our hands around this.”

So Jones and others have created a new laboratory that specializes in finding opioid in blood samples, he said. They’ve taken those samples and put them through a series of chemical extractions to 'pull opioid out of the blood specimen.'

“When you look at the opioids, there’s hundreds,” said Jones who is also a professor of biomedical sciences. “If we look at fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid, there’s at least 400 known fentalogs.”

Jones said they’re getting the  blood samples from nine counties that have decided to partake in the program. Once they received them they’re able to get results in 2-3 days, which is much shorter than the typical 10-14 days of toxicology report. However, since the program launched in September 2017, they’ve noticed a few patterns.

“We’re beginning to identify areas where hot batches [are],” said Jones. “We’re able to see multiple cases where a fatality is suggested due to these substances.”

Jones said their results are confidential for now. It’s a state-funded program and they’re expected to get them first. However, he hopes the project continues to operate for years to come, considering it’s gotten national recognition.

“Already we have the Drug Enforcement Administration interested in our findings because it could prove very helpful,” said Jones.

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