Science & Technology



Creating a safer fentanyl. How UF researchers are making the deadly drug less addictive

Michelle Marchante, Miami Herald on

Published in Science & Technology News

MIAMI — A group of scientists say they’ve created a safer version of fentanyl that could potentially diminish the drug’s addictive side effects, which have resulted in annual deaths of tens of thousands of people across the United States.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is prescribed to treat patients with severe pain though it’s also sold illegally and mixed with other drugs, including cocaine and heroin, making it more deadly. It’s Exhibit A in the country’s decades-long opioid crisis.

What is ‘fourth wave’ of the U.S. opioid crisis?

The crisis, which began with prescription opioids in the 1990s and resulted last year in a nearly $6 billion U.S. Justice Department settlement with Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family, for their deceptive practices in selling OxyContin, is now in its “fourth wave.” In this stage, fentanyl is mixed with other drugs, often without buyers knowing it.

The lacing of fentanyl with deadly drugs like heroin is leading to a rise in stimulant-related overdoses, according to Melissa Ward, an assistant professor in the epidemiology department at Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

More powerful than heroin


Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine and is one of the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths. In 2021, more than 107,000 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose. About 71,450 of the deaths (66.5%) involved synthetic opioids, primarily illegally made fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, which are altered versions of the original drug, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while prescribed fentanyl can still be misused and abused, most recent U.S. cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death are linked to illegally made fentanyl, according to the CDC.

At the Miami Recovery Project, the mission is to help people on their road to recovery through a variety of free and confidential services, including peer support, overdose prevention training and Narcan distribution. Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, is a prescription medicine used to reverse or reduce the effects of opioids.

“We’re starting to see individuals that come in ... and those individuals are reporting that they prefer not to try and get heroin, OxyContin, Percodan or anything like that. They strictly want to utilize fentanyl. That’s all they’re looking for, which carries an extreme, extreme danger because the mortality risk is extremely high,” said Brian Sims, the executive director of the Miami Recovery Project.


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