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Addressing the Fentanyl Analogue Epidemic by Multiplex UHPLC-MS/MS Analysis of Whole Blood

Bergh, Marianne Skov-Skov, MSc*,†; Bogen, Inger Lise, PhD*,‡; Wilson, Steven Ray, PhD; Øiestad, Åse Marit Leere, PhD*

doi: 10.1097/FTD.0000000000000564
Original Article

Background: Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues (fentanyls) are very potent opioids posing a serious threat to the public health. Thousands of overdose deaths across the world are caused by fentanyls, and the numbers are increasing. Rapid mapping of current trends in opioid abuse is necessary to accelerate preventive measures. To ensure this, there is a need for sensitive targeted multiplex MS/MS methods to pinpoint drugs of abuse. We present a fully validated UHPLC-MS/MS method for the determination of 26 fentanyls, including several structural isomers, and the opioid antagonist naloxone in human whole blood.

Methods: Blood samples were prepared by liquid–liquid extraction with ethyl acetate and heptane. The fentanyls were separated with UHPLC, using a Kinetex biphenyl column (2.1 × 100 mm, 1.7 µm; Phenomenex, Verløse, Denmark) with an acidic mobile phase. Quantification was performed by MS/MS. The method was validated according to SWGTOX guidelines.

Results: The developed method could successfully separate all 27 analytes, including 7 isomers, and was validated according to SWGTOX guidelines with very low limits of quantification (4–20 pg/mL). The applicability of the method was demonstrated by determination of fentanyls in postmortem blood samples from 2 cases.

Conclusions: A selective, highly sensitive, and robust method for determination of a large panel of fentanyls and naloxone in blood was developed and validated. Naloxone was included to monitor use and efficacy of the opioid antidote in cases of fentanyl overdoses. The method demonstrated good ability to separate structural isomers, which is important to differentiate between the numerous available fentanyls with variable potency, toxicity, and legal status. The developed method can be used to identify fentanyls on the drug market to help combat the fentanyl crisis.

*Department of Forensic Sciences, Division of Laboratory Medicine, Oslo University Hospital;

Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Oslo; and

Division of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.

Correspondence: Marianne Skov-Skov Bergh, MSc, Lovisenberggata 6, 0456 Oslo, Norway (e-mail:

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Received May 07, 2018

Accepted June 27, 2018

Copyright © 2018 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.