Alberta has rolled out thousands of overdose kits to help combat a growing fentanyl crisis in the province, but the kits may be powerless against an even more dangerous new opioid on the market.
Last week, Calgary police confirmed a 35-year-old man's overdose may have been due to the presence of W-18 in his system.
W-18 is 100-times stronger than fentanyl.
An official cuts a fentanyl pill in half. W-18 is a similar opioid that has recently been found in Alberta. (Photo: Getty)
In 2015, fentanyl was to blame for 274 overdose deaths in Alberta, according to the province's government.
Alberta Health distributed nearly 10,000 naloxone overdose kits designed to temporarily reverse an opioid overdose, in an effort to fight back against fentanyl's growing hold on the province.
The take-home kits are available at harm-reduction agencies, as well as pharmacies and walk-in clinics with a prescription.
"We don't know if W18 is binding to the same receptors in the brain that... naloxone bind to."
The kits, however, might not reverse a W-18 overdose, largely because the way the drug works is unknown.
"There is very limited information on the pharmacology of W-18 so we don't know if W-18 is binding to the same receptors in the brain that opioids, such as heroin and morphine, and opioid antagonists, such as naloxone, bind to," harm reduction specialist Ashraf Amlani told the Globe and Mail.
Another issue is the drug's strength. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control believes W-18 may be too powerful for naloxone to work, Global News reported.
May be a potential cure for overdoses
There is one small piece of good news. The formula behind the drug might also hold the key to an equally strong cure.
University of Alberta scientists first developed the drug in the 1980s, according to the National Post.
Those scientists, who never tested the drug on humans, looked at both opioids and antidotes.
"In addition to the ones that had varying degrees of analgesic activity there were also compounds that were developed in that series which were actually antagonists , they would actually block the actions of things like morphine at the receptor, so it had no effect," retired U of A professor Ed Knaus told the Calgary Sun.
Naloxone option for now
Until another cure is developed, health officials say the current best option for W-18 users is still naloxone.
"If people are exposed to W-18 and they have symptoms of overdose, same as fentanyl, they should take naloxone and call 911,'' Dr. Laura Calhoun of Alberta Health Services told The Canadian Press.
Also on HuffPost:
Hardy and Amelia Leighton, both in their 30s, were found dead July 20, 2015, leaving behind their two-year-old son Magnus. Toxicology testing confirmed that the couple ingested toxic levels of fentanyl in combination with other drugs.
From January to May 2015, 54 deaths were linked to fentanyl. From July 7 to Aug. 7, 2015, fentanyl was detected in at least 12 deaths, said the BC Coroners Service. In 2012, there were a total of 15 deaths related to the narcotic.
Jack Bodie, 17, and a 16-year-old friend were both found unconscious in a Vancouver park on Aug. 1, 2015 in a suspected fentanyl overdose. The teens were rushed to hospital where Bodie was placed on life support but he died a day later. His friend recovered and was released from hospital. Police believe the pair took fake Oxycontin.
Police in Delta, B.C. said it's a miracle that no one died after nine people overdosed within a 20-minute period on what are believed to be drugs laced with fentanyl. Emergency crews responded to a series of nearly simultaneous calls from four locations about recreational drug users who thought they were taking cocaine.
Fake Oxycontin pills containing fentanyl are displayed during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine.
The cheap synthetic opioid often added in drug labs to heroin or Oxycontin to make it more potent and fast-acting, according to police. (Pictured is a photo released by Vancouver police of packages of fentanyl which users thought were heroin.)
North Vancouver RCMP said they suspect the death of a 31-year-old man on July 31, 2015 is also linked to fentanyl. A relative found the man in distress and called police, but he died at the scene.
On Aug. 9, 2015, 16 people overdosed in Vancouver — including six in one hour — from pink heroin that police suspect was laced with fentanyl.
Mounties showed off equipment, pills, money and weapons seized from a counterfeit Oxycontin production facility in Burnaby in 2015. They said there was enough fentanyl pills to put 200 to 300 people's lives at risk. Riley Goodwin, 26, of Vancouver, has been charged with production and possession for the purposes of trafficking.
RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick shows off seized pill making equipment during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C. on Sept. 3, 2015. Among the gear was a pill press capable of producing 18,000 tablets an hour, said police.
A member of the RCMP Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team is framed by pill manufacturing equipment while standing in a protective suit, of the type worn when dismantling drug production facilities containing fentanyl, during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015.
RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick of the RCMP Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team, holds genuine Oxycontin pills, left, and seized fake Oxycontin pills containing fentanyl, right, during a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 3, 2015.
In October 2014, Vancouver police issued a warning about fentanyl masquerading as heroin. It caused more than 30 overdoses and one death that month.