W-18 is largely being misinterpreted–or overblown, perhaps–because it’s being lumped in with morphine and fentanyl, opioid drugs that produce feelings of well-being but that can also become addictive.
At first, that’s understandable because it was first found in a drug seizure that authorities thought was fentanyl, a medically useful opioid that’s become a drug of abuse and misuse because it can be transported and shipped in smaller quantities than heroin.
When you’re hearing that W-18 is 10,000 times more potent than morphine or 100 times more potent than fentanyl, these descriptions are referring only to 35-year-old animal experiments showing that W-18 suppresses a mouse’s response to painful stimuli.
At present, we do not know if W-18 is itself an opioid or whether it poses addictive or lethal risks like those of an opioid.
Unconscious, but still breathing
The graduate student working on the project, who told me this week that he doesn’t want to be named or contacted by other journalists, remembers that when they first injected some of these chemicals into the animals at a dose similar to aspirin, the mice stood up for about a minute and fell over unconscious. They remained unconscious–for five days.
But they weren’t dead. They were still breathing.
And when they woke, they seemed fine, other than being really hungry and thirsty.
The University of Alberta group did test one of the W compounds (W-3) to see if its analgesic effects could be reversed by the opioid blocker and emergency antidote, naloxone. While there was partial reversal of its painkilling effects, it wasn’t complete.
The graduate student told me that they performed some molecular modeling studies in the 1980s that showed W-18 shared some chemical qualities of other opioids. However, no direct evidence exists to show that W-18 even binds to the opioid receptors that we and other mammals have in our brain and spinal cord.
To summarize, fentanyl is a more potent opioid than morphine and has caused hundreds of deaths in Alberta alone. W-18 was first found in a shipment of what was thought to be fentanyl. But we do not know if W-18 is an opioid or whether it has poses the same human health risks as fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone or other opioid drugs.
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