In Canada, death from drug overdoses is on the rise. More than 34,000 people died from opioid toxicity between January 2016 and September 2022 — about 20 deaths a day. In many cases, the drugs are unknowingly mixed with other substances like fentanyl, increasing the risk of an accidental overdose.
To help lower that danger, a Kingston-based startup called Spectra Plasmonics has created a new way to test street drugs. These rapid tests determine what’s in them, help harm reduction programs counsel users on safe use and can also help public health agencies to predict likely numbers of overdoses and allocate resources. Spectra’s tech allows users to get chemical analysis anywhere. Within minutes, it can take an unknown drug sample and provide a comprehensive ingredient breakdown. “The results are in plain language and the tech is easy enough for anybody to operate,” explains founder and CEO Malcolm Eade.
Eade founded Spectra Plasmonics after studying biomedical sciences at Queen’s University. He was on the path to medical school when he realized, about halfway through his degree, that he didn’t enjoy being in hospitals. But, “I really liked the intersection of health and technology — and communicating about it,” he says. Eade got involved in some of his peers’ startups and joined an entrepreneurial program at the university. During that time, Eade attended a talk about the rise of fentanyl in the drug supply. The speaker, someone who worked at a supervised consumption site, said that users have no idea what they are consuming. That’s when it all clicked for Eade, who realized “that if you could test things, you could potentially save a lot of lives.”
Here, Eade discusses the importance of data for the opioid crisis and how having better information can lead to more effective interventions.
What made you want to go into this line of business?
I’m someone who’s pretty obsessive. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was so interested in medicine — I’m a bit of hypochondriac — so data analytics and monitoring were things I was drawn to. The idea of Spectra doing that with laboratory data came from that inspiration and passion.
So are you one of those people who is decked out with all the wearables to monitor your health?
I’m on a bit of a hiatus from my Apple Watch right now. I got a little bit too into it. I used to do the advanced heart rate monitoring that would track my level of physiological readiness, and track my nutrients and stuff like that. I go through ebbs and flows of being obsessed like that.
How does your tech work?
The machine scans the sample and collects information around its unique chemical fingerprint. In each measurement, we’re getting an information-rich spectrum. It kind of looks like an ECG — just a bunch of squiggly lines. But that’s not very meaningful to someone unless they know how to read them. Our tech then runs the samples through a machine-learning model, which is trained on thousands of scans of physical drugs, and makes plain-language interpretations based off of that.
Drug-testing kits are fairly commonplace now, so how does your machine compare to existing tech?
There are a lot of test kits out there that, in some contexts, can be useful. But they’re limited in what they can detect. For instance, some can only tell you if fentanyl is present. When it comes to drugs, the details matter. Knowing if it’s mixed with other agents like fentanyl or xylazine, which is a horse tranquilizer, or benzodiazepines, which are a class of anti-anxiety medication. That’s relevant. We have the ability to detect those things all on a single test, even if it’s a trace amount.
There’s laboratory instrumentation that can tell you that information, but often has a long turnaround time. And there are not many laboratory programs out there because the set-up is complex and they are expensive.
How is it being used?
Our devices are sold mainly to institutions, so groups that are running harm-reduction sites or public health programs. People can bring a drug sample into a test location and get a breakdown of what’s in it. They can have a conversation around what those results mean and whether that mixture is known to cause harmful adverse reactions, and then be armed with more information and be on their way.
We have several deployments in Ontario, Atlantic Canada, on the west coast and in the northeastern United States. Those are all public health harm-reduction testing programs.
Why is rapid testing important?
There’s very little real-time information on what’s in the illicit drug supply. It’s a moving target, it changes a lot. That information is very valuable for people getting the results on the frontline, but also for public health to track and allocate resources appropriately. Finding out if fentanyl is an issue in a community or if it’s something else helps health agencies decide whether to invest in more Narcan [medication that helps reverse overdoses] or something else. It’s also about knowing where the hotspots of drugs and overdoses actually are. This information can be a game changer for the opioid crisis.
The U.S. is shifting its stance on the opioid overdose epidemic away from treating it as a law enforcement issue and toward a public health one. How has that impacted you?
The States is making various policy changes and major investments into harm reduction and treatment as part of their strategy. It’s been exciting to see that shift. For instance, with the Biden administration, the Drug Czar, who sits in the White House and heads drug policy for the administration and the agencies responsible for the drug crisis, is a medical doctor for the first time. It was always a law enforcement type of person in that role. So now, the policies and the directives from the federal government have really shifted to a healthcare approach.
The U.S. is keeping us busy right now on the expansion front. We’re aiming to be coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. before the end of the year. The way that the States is approaching the opioid crisis has changed quite significantly over the past two years, they’re starting to have more of a healthcare approach, like Canada does. We’ve gotten a lot of credibility from being Canadian.
How do you hope to make a difference in mitigating the crisis?
The opioid crisis is extremely complex. It requires a multifaceted approach from a variety of community partners and different strategies and technologies. But we believe data is foundational. It’s important to know what’s out there, what’s actually going on in the community and make your investments and other decisions based on good data.
When it comes to larger-scale prevention, we believe that with enough devices out in the field the data can be used for predictive analytics. By knowing when certain drugs will come into an area, local public health agencies can make informed decisions and potentially prevent mass casualty events.
Photos courtesy of Spectra Plasmonics