A synthetic opioid drug that was developed in the 1970s — but never made available to the public — is being sold online and North Texans are getting sick as a result, toxicologists with the North Texas Poison Center said.
The drug, U-47700, landed at least two North Texans in the hospital, one of whom was in intensive care for several days, according to officials with the center.
“No matter how you want to party — I don’t think anyone wants to die,” said Dr. Joann Schulte, a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Control Center, based at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
The drug, developed by the pharmaceutical company Upjohn, was determined to be 7 1/2 times stronger than morphine in previous animal tests, according to the poison center.
The person thought it was going to be like cocaine, but it was like heroin.
Dr. Joann Schulte
The designer drug has gained popularity through drug forums and websites, where it is sold as a powder or granules. One website offers 1 gram for $40, or up to 1 kilogram for $7,000. Deaths have been reported in Europe, and the drug is illegal in Finland and Sweden as of this year.
The person who was in ICU had snorted the white, powdery drug with three friends at a party, mistakenly thinking it would be similar to cocaine, Schulte told the Star-Telegram. Instead, it was like heroin, Schulte said.
The person, whom officials did not identify, was released from the hospital last weekend. Schulte said she could not disclose where the patient was treated.
One other person who took the drug also had to be hospitalized, and two others were OK, Schulte said.
Synthetic drugs a big problem
Officials with the poison center said they receive calls daily from North Texas hospitals about synthetic opioids.
Opioids act on the central nervous system. They include substances derived from the opium poppy as well as semisynthetic and synthetic chemicals such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Medically, their primary use is relieving pain.
Heroin is also a semisynthetic agent.
Respiratory depression is a big concern with U-47700, which doesn’t have a controlled chemical makeup and appears to work faster than heroin.
Opioids can depress breathing, which is typically the way people who overdose on heroin die, Schulte said. Respiratory depression is a big concern with U-47700, which has no controls over how it is made and appears to work faster than heroin.
When it comes to designer drugs, people who are “typically overseas” and “know something about chemistry” will synthesize them, put them on the Internet and sell them as “not intended for human use,” but people use them anyway, Schulte said.
“Not only are you not sure what you are getting, sometimes they mix them with other chemicals like insecticides and strychnine,” she said. “When you get something like this over the Internet — you don’t know exactly what it is.”
Drug overdose deaths involving prescription synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl and Tramadol and street synthetics nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, according to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Since 2000, the number of opioid overdose deaths overall has increased 200 percent, the report stated.
Folklore along the way has erroneously taught people to put someone who is overdosing on something like heroin in a tub of cold water, said Dr. Glenn Hardesty, a Texas Health Resources emergency physician.
“The story is the same every time. The person overdoses, they [friends] throw them in cold water, they eventually bring the person in and their core temperature is 80 degrees because everyone panicked and jacked around for an hour,” Hardesty said.
He said people think cold water will help the person wake up, but by the time the person ends up in the emergency room they are blue and not breathing.
“They look like a Smurf,” he said, and are far worse off than they would have been if they hadn’t been put in cold water.
Hardesty said synthetic drugs like U-47700 constantly come and go.
“It’s going to get on the DEA radar real quick, it’ll soon become outlawed and we’ll just be waiting for the next one to pop up,” he said.
On Friday, the Health and Human Services Department said it was handing out $94 million in grants to health centers nationwide to focus on treating opioid use in underserved populations.
“The opioid epidemic is one of the most pressing public health issues in the United States today,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a news release.
Texas health centers receiving grants are in Cotulla, El Paso, Houston and Port Arthur.
U-47700 just getting started
Schulte said people who abuse opioids usually buy them on the street, take another person’s medicine or fake pain to get prescriptions. Synthetic opioids are worrisome because they can be bought online, which is unusual, she said.
Dallas police, who are fighting a K2 (synthetic cannabinoid) epidemic, said they haven’t seen any activity related to the synthetic opioid.
Denton, Arlington and Fort Worth police say they haven’t seen U-47700 hit their streets, either.
But the drug is so new that it’s hard to even test for it. In North Texas, the tests are sent off to a research lab. Developing a test could be several months away.
Since 2000, the number of opioid overdose deaths has increased 200 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Schulte credited recent patients for sharing their story and explaining what exactly happened so that others could be warned.
Not all drugs are created equal
Dr. Alan Podawiltz, chairman of psychiatry at John Peter Smith Hospital and the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, said groups of people end up in the psych emergency room at JPS based on “hot spot” batches of synthetic drugs.
Though he did not talk specifically about U-47700, he said users of synthetic drugs range in age from their teens to their 60s who are all looking for an altered reality.
“It’s like they got the Willy Wonka bar that had the lucky ticket,” he said sarcastically.
During a recent interview, Podawiltz held out a piece of tissue paper and asked for some water to be poured on the middle.
He then ripped up the tissue in four pieces.
“This one is for you and this one is for you,” he said, pretending to be handing out synthetic drugs.
“Notice the difference in the pieces?”
Some were wetter than others.
The point is, he said, is that’s what happens with synthetic drugs: Some doses get more of the chemicals than others.
Some synthetic drugs turn people psychotic to the point that JPS employees can’t treat them with the anti-psychotics people with diagnosed mental illnesses would take.
“We have to sedate them with an IV,” Podawiltz said.
What’s worse is that it can take more than an overnight hospital stay to re-regulate the brain’s chemistry.
“What we found in the depression and psychosis that comes out of synthetics is quite intractable — it can take weeks to get out of a psychosis,” he said.