Brown researchers aim to save lives by testing illicit drugs for secret, often-deadly ingredients

Students doing research

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a toxicology lab at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, a team of Brown University researchers has been testing samples labeled “biohazard” to discover the precise nature of their toxicity. The bags contain drug residue from discarded drug paraphernalia collected from harm reduction organizations in local communities.

Once samples are tested, findings are disseminated through print flyers, social media posts and emails from the Rhode Island Department of Health. Results are also made available on, the state's overdose dashboard developed through a partnership with the Brown School of Public Health. Sample donors are contacted and provided with information regarding the contents of the residue they submitted for testing. The results can be a surprise — to the sample testers and sample donors alike.

This type of analysis is the cornerstone of TestRI, a new two-year project and study led by Brown researchers and funded by the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts. There’s an urgent, growing need to test illicit drugs for the presence of additional drugs, according to the research team. Rhode Island, like many parts of the country, is facing an overdose crisis, due largely to the presence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl in the drug supply. Fentanyl can cause overdose even in minuscule amounts, particularly for those who have never encountered it before. If a person doesn’t realize that fentanyl is present in a supply of cocaine or methamphetamines, they have a higher risk of accidentally overdosing. KEEP READING