The substance is so strong that it sent lab mice into a five-day coma.
According to recent reports in the media, a drug known as W-18, which is said to be as much as 10,000x stronger than morphine, has been found on the streets of Canada.
W-18 was originally developed by scientists at the University of Alberta back in the 80s, and it was intended to be a less addictive painkiller that could replace existing opioid medications like morphine and oxycodone.
However, the substance proved to have a bit too much of a punch, and sent some of the lab mice into a five-day coma.
To no surprise, no pharmaceutical company would move forward with W-18, so the research was recorded in medical journals but never put to use. In time, W-18 was completely forgotten about — until now.
According to The Age National, the first sign of W-18 came in August 2015 when police in Calgary, a city in Alberta, Canada, busted a shipment of 110 pills that were thought to contain fentanyl — another synthetic opioid reported to be about 10 times stronger than heroin. Through chemical analysis, scientists discovered that a number of these pills actually contained traces of W-18, suspected to have been produced in laboratories in China.
But that was just the beginning. Following this April incident, larger stashes of W-18 have been found in locations across Canada and the US, but the substance has never actually been scheduled as an illegal compound since it’s so rare and unknown.
Although the substance is reported to be 10,000x stronger than morphine, the comparison is a bit tenuous until researchers pin down exactly how W-18 has its effects in the body.
Morphine, for instance, works by binding to opiate receptors in the central nervous system, thereby weakening feelings of pain — this is its mode of action. It’s this property that makes opioid drugs highly addictive.
W-18’s mode of action is still unknown, so scientists aren’t entirely sure if the painkiller affects the body like an opioid or not, which could actually mean we could be dealing with something even more dangerous than we know.
As Forbes explains, the scientists who first produced the compound solely tested its painkilling ability, but not its mode of action. Therefore, further research will have to confirm whether the substance works by binding to opiate receptors, like morphine does, or by some other mechanism.
Until these discoveries are made, we have no way of knowing how addictive the substance is or what side-effects may come with W-18 use. If it begins to circulate through the streets in larger quantities, we could be faced with a number of problems, including overdoses.
“Here's a drug that's 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, but [dealers] really have no idea what they're dealing with," Martin Schiavetta, a staff sergeant with the Calgary Police Service Drug Unit, told VICE. "I don't think the criminal element has that much foresight [to think about killing off customer base]; I think it's about making money here and now, and they have no regard for the customers who they're selling the drugs to."
Here’s to hoping that science solves the W-18 mystery sooner rather than later.
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