Science | November 12, 2017 10:00 am

One Laboratory is Building a Library of Every Designer Drug

To combat mass overdoses, this project is cataloging 500 psychoactive substances.

To combat the rise of the next big designer drug, one lab is trying to catalog every known psychoactive substance—all 500 of them.

Designer drugs—which tend to be very easy to get—are created when you synthesize chemicals in order to get a high that is strong enough to feel, but not dangerous or deadly. But if you tweak one molecule, the entire structure changes, and you can’t predict how it will affect the human body. The Verge looked into the lab run by toxicologist Roy Gerona that is trying to identify and classify these substances before mass overdoses from them happen.

This task is made more difficult because these types of drugs don’t show up on traditional drug tests, and are hard to track. But they are harming people around the country, like the 30 people who collapsed, vomiting and twitching, a year ago in Brooklyn after smoking an herbal incense product called AK-47 24 Karat Gold. Luckily, Gerona had already synthesized a variant of the drug—which is known by the much less cool, scientific name of AMB-FUBINACA.

Gerona launched his lab in 2010, in partnership with the San Francisco Poison Control Center. That year was when the designer drug “bath salts” began flooding the market. Bath salts created a high like MDMA and sometimes hallucinations, but they also caused deadly freak-outs, like when a 31-year-old Miami resident attacked and ate a homeless man.

Gerona set up a collaboration with Michael Schwartz, a toxicologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and DEA pharmacologist Jordan Trecki. Gerona and his lab now have about three years of work stored in a “prophetic library,” which is a detailed storehouse of already synthesized variants that might become the next big street drug.

Gerona knows that weeding out designer drugs is probably an impossible task, The Verge writes, but he wants to create better methods for predicting what is going to get big, and then immediately understand the substances involved so it’s easier to develop prevention and treatment methods.