Detection of Fentanyl Analogs and Synthetic Opioids in Real Hair Samples

Salomone A, Palamar JJ, Bigiarini R, Gerace E, Di Corcia D, Vincenti M

J Anal Toxicol. 2019 May 1;43(4):259-265


Novel synthetic opioids include various analogs of fentanyl and emerging non-fentanyl compounds with different chemical structures, such as AH-7921, MT-45 and U-47700.

In recent years, these drugs have rapidly emerged on the drug market, and their abuse has been increasing worldwide. The motivations for use of these new compounds include their legal status, ready availability, low cost, users’ curiosity or preference for their particular pharmacological properties and the intention to avoid detection.

Furthermore, more common drugs like heroin are now increasingly being replaced or cut with fentanyl or new designer opioids; thus, many drug users are unintentionally or unknowingly using synthetic fentanyl analogs. In this scenario, the detection of new psychoactive substances in hair can provide insight into their current diffusion among the population and social characteristics of these synthetic drug users.

In this manuscript, we describe a simple, fast, specific and sensitive UHPLC-MS-MS method able to detect 13 synthetic opioids (including fentanyl analogs) and metabolites in hair samples. Furthermore, the method includes the detection of 4-anilino-N-phenethyl-piperidine (4-ANPP), which is considered both a precursor and a metabolite of several fentanyl analogs.

The method was applied to 34 real hair samples collected in New York City from subjects who had reported past-year non-medical opioid and/or heroin use. In total, 17 samples tested positive for at least one target analyte, with oxycodone (nine samples) and tramadol (eight samples) being the most common.

Among these, the method was able to quantify furanyl-fentanyl and fentanyl in the pg/mg range in two samples. Simultaneously, also 4-ANPP was detected, giving evidence for the first time that this compound can be selected as a marker of fentanyl analogs use via hair testing.

In conclusion, this study confirmed the increasing diffusion of new synthetic opioids and “fentalogs” with high potency among non-medical opioid users.