Global media outlets have recently been reporting the appearance of a terrifying new drug, known as W-18, on the streets of Canada, with many suggesting that the substance could be as much as 10,000 times stronger than morphine. However, the truth is that such comparisons are somewhat tenuous, since very little is actually known about how this alarming drug works – a fact that could potentially make it more dangerous than even these sensational reports imply.
Originally developed by scientists at the University of Alberta back in the mid-1980s, W-18 was intended to be a synthetic painkiller that could outperform existing opioid medications such as morphine and oxycodone. The substance was only ever tested on mice, and proved to be so strong that it sent some of the rodents into a five-day coma.
However, research on W-18 was never taken any further, so instead of being used to develop new pharmaceuticals for human consumption, the compound went the way of so many other rejected research chemicals and simply disappeared into the abyss of forgotten science – until now.
The first sign of W-18 rearing its ugly head in the guise of a street drug came in August 2015, when police in Calgary busted a shipment of 110 pills thought to contain the prohibited substance fentanyl – itself a synthetic opioid purported to be around 10 times stronger than heroin. Chemical analysis revealed that a small number of these pills actually contained traces of W-18, thought to have been produced in Chinese laboratories.
Since then, larger stashes of the substance have been found in other locations across Canada and the U.S., although because W-18 is so rare and unheard of, it has never actually been scheduled as an illegal compound.
Morphine works by binding to opiate receptors in the central nervous system, although it is still not known if W-18 works in the same way. Zerbor/Shutterstock
Understandably, the emergence of what appears to be a new super-potent scourge has got many people worried, although in spite of the widespread comparisons between W-18 and morphine, the reality is that existing opioids may not provide a reliable yardstick for measuring the harmfulness of this new compound.
The reason for this is that opioid drugs like morphine work by binding to opiate receptors in the central nervous system in order to cut off feelings of pain. This property makes them highly addictive, leading to chronic use, which can then produce a number of negative health effects.
However, while there is no doubt that W-18 is an extremely potent painkiller, it is not yet known whether or not the drug is, in fact, an opioid. According to a recent article in Forbes, the researchers who produced the compound only tested its pain-killing ability, but did not investigate its mode of action. As such, we don’t know if it works by binding to opiate receptors or by some other mechanism.
Because of this, there’s still no telling how addictive W-18 may be, or what its side-effects might be. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that it’s some serious stuff, and several public health experts are already predicting that the drug could cause large numbers of deaths if it finds its way onto the streets in large quantities.