Smartphones to become overdose prevention tools

Sep 1, 2021

In a recent interview with CBC News, Dr. Dan Werb, an epidemiologist and executive director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation in Toronto discussed a new portable drug-testing device called DoseCheck that could serve as an overdose prevention tool.

Together with Dr. Drew Hall, a colleague from the University of San Diego, Dr. Werb has been developing a device that could break down the components of a street drug, checking for potentially toxic components.

DoseCheck is the size of a smartphone, Bluetooth-enabled and consists of a circuit board, sensor and battery.

When checking the sample using the device, voltage runs through the device sensor, and as a result, different drugs create peaks at different voltages. Each peak’s height signals correspond to the concentration of that drug within the sample. Furthermore, sensors can be changed to detect new contaminants as they’re discovered in the drug supply.

The data collected by the device can then be sent to a smartphone app, which will perform the analysis, providing the user with a breakdown of the drug.

In 2019, DoseCheck was announced as a finalist in Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge, which was launched in 2018 to promote innovations in harm reduction.

According to Dr. Werb, drug-checking technologies aren’t currently widely available, while drug-checking machines are expensive because of a lack of interest from companies.

“It’s a non-viable business model for major technology companies,” he said. “People who are structurally vulnerable and using drugs, and frontline harm-reduction workers, that’s not a huge market.”

Dr. Werb added that DoseCheck will be sold at a price ranging between $300 and $350, while expressing hope that centres such as Vancouver Network of Drug Users (VANDU) that do not receive federal funding for drug checking will be able to purchase the device at this low price. DoseCheck is expected to enter the market within the next year to 18 months.

Currently, drug-testing machines such as spectrometers remain out of reach for VANDU due to their high prices.

“I think the machines themselves are worth about $50,000,” said Braithwaite, a board member at VANDU. “We’re a non-profit organization, we don’t have that kind of money just lying around.” In addition, VANDU currently lacks technicians needed to operate such machines.

“The government is not supplying injection centres with these machines or with the technicians. That’s what we need,” said Braithwaite.

The need for such devices is only increasing due to border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic causing many illicit drug dealers in Canada to attempt to stretch their supply with dangerous additives such as fentanyl and benzodiazepines, significantly increasing the risk of overdose.

Portable and affordable drug-checking technology such as DoseCheck, therefore, offers an effective way to check illicit drugs for deadly components and prevent the risk of overdose.