UM professor collaborates with FIU professor, DEA to trace opioid production

Opioid misuse plagues millions in America every year, with the heart of the crisis in Florida. Now two professors, including one from the University of Miami, are working to transform the methods to determine the sources of specific heroin samples.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids in 2015. The opioid epidemic claimed the lives of almost 13,000 Americans in the same year.

On Oct. 26, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Though funds weren’t increased to fight the abuse, Trump vowed to battle against the epidemic by producing government-funded advertisements against opioid use.

“No part of our society, not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural has been spared this plague of drug addition and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids,” Trump said during a ceremony at the White House.

FIU’s José Almirall, director of FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute, was first approached with a project request funded by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Almirall, also a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, reached out to Ali Pourmand, an isotope geochemist at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Together, they have been collaborating to fight a national crisis.

Pourmand and Almirall’s project is the first of its kind. The researchers examine and profile samples of heroin to find what are called “tagging agents,” impurities that allow researchers to determine the origin of the drug.

“By identifying the tracer, I could tell you that this sample has the fingerprint, or the signature, of a South American heroin, or that this sample is from South Asia,” Pourmand said.

The DEA’s funding allowed for the processing of 400 heroin samples, all of which originated from four regions infamous for heroin distribution: Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, South America and Mexico.

Pourmand said these four “hotspots” are where the opium poppies are refined and “cooked” in to heroin. Although the manufacturing process of heroin is similar throughout the regions, the chemical composition varies. Each manufacturer utilizes different raw material, and this is what allows the heroin to be traced.

The key tracer used in the study, called a radiogenic strontium isotope, either links “the heroin to the rock on which the plant grew, or to the component that the heroin was mixed with,” Pourmand said.

Although the DEA had been using a number of other tracking agents, Pourmand said, the introduction of the strontium isotope added a “new layer of forensic and tactical information in tracking where the heroin came from.”

In order to verify the accuracy of the new method, the DEA gave Pourmand and Almirall samples it had already traced and asked the researchers to use their approach.

Eighty-five percent of samples were correctly traced to the location of origin, creating a “not entirely conclusive, but very successful” forensic tool.

Through continuation and refinement of the recently discovered strontium-based method, Pourmand said there is a possibility for expansion of the project.

“The idea is to build a big database, ultimately, that an agent that confiscates heroin can go to and have it analyzed and determined where it originated from,” he said.