Counterterrorism devices repurposed to test for fentanyl

The MX908 mass spectrometer device, which was originally marketed by portable chemical analysis startup 908 Devices as a counterterrorism tool, is now being used by the Boston Public Health Commission to combat the opioid crisis, NPR reports.

Members of the commission's harm reduction services team are field-testing the new use for the devices, which were designed predominantly to help groups such as the military and hazardous material specialists detect biological weapons and identify chemicals present in spills and explosions.

The Boston group, however, uses the MX908 to detect the presence of fentanyl in even miniscule samples of illicit drugs, as the incredibly potent synthetic opioid is increasingly used to augment drugs such as heroin and cocaine and is a common contributor to fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. This new use for the device is not widespread, largely due to its prohibitive price tag of $65,000; the only other group known to be using the MX908 for a similar purpose is the Chicago Recovery Alliance.

Though it is too early to know the impact of using the device for drug testing on the nation's opioid crisis, advocates believe that having a better understanding of the makeup of the nation's drug supply will help public health officials, authorities and drug users be more prepared to address the associated risks, according to the NPR report.

"This improvement in consumer knowledge and confidence in what they're getting, and how to use it, can improve the safety of the larger supply," said Traci Green, PhD, a researcher in emergency medicine at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University, who is evaluating the Boston commission's trial run of the MX908.

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