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Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that’s skimming through legal loopholes

12-29-16 Category: Addiction, Substance Abuse

Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that's skimming through legal loopholes

Isobel Heim stands with a portrait of her daughter Natasha ( Photo by Charles Kudla /For Sovereign Health )

She had plans. With just six days until Natasha Heim’s 20th birthday, she was in the middle of finals week at Cal State Long Beach, had invited friends to her apartment for her upcoming birthday celebration and purchased tickets to a New Year’s Eve concert. But before she could finish her exams and enjoy her winter break, she died from an accidental opioid overdose.

As her family and friends are left to pick up the petals of her still-fresh and fragrant memory, details of her last days make clear she was a beautiful, intelligent and popular young woman – with a life in full bloom – suddenly plucked from the living by an obscure substance ­– increasingly used as a feel-good sedative – called U-47700.

Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that's skimming through legal loopholes

Natasha Heim’s memorial program ( Photo by Charles Kudla /For Sovereign Health )

U-47700: What we know so far

Morphine is used to ease the pain of those seriously injured and facilitate a death free of agony for terminal patients.

Long-term use of opioids results in tolerance, which means higher and higher doses are required to achieve the same effect and prevent painful withdrawal symptoms. Drug manufacturers create opioids that are exponentially more powerful than morphine. Here’s what else we know about the substance, also called U-4 and Pink or Pinky:

  • U-47700 is 7.5 times more potent than morphine
  • U-4 was part of the opioid “cocktail” linked to artist Prince’s overdose death, along with fentanyl
  • U-4 is among several dozen research opioid chemicals (RC) synthetically created in the 1970s by pharmaceutical company Upjohn; it was tested on mice but never on humans
  • Up until mid-November this year, U-4 could be legally purchased from online suppliers in China, and possibly elsewhere, “for research purposes only”
  • On Nov. 14, 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration made U-47700 a Schedule I drug, specifically labeled a psychoactive with no medicinal value
  • Although the patented compound U-4 is now on the DEA’s radar as illegal for U.S. manufacture and purchase, slight variances of the substance are continuously surfacing and thus slipping through both international import cracks as well as medical toxicology screens – making drug enforcement, overdose fatalities and street purchases near impossible to trace
  • U-4 causes euphoria and relaxation and is sought after for purported mild addictive qualities, but it also has the simultaneous danger of rapid respiratory depression

Aaron Schneir, M.D. is a professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicologist at the University of California in San Diego. He published a case report of near death from U-47700 in the January 2017 issue of Clinical Toxicology (e-published July 22, 2016) highlighting the emerging trend of novel synthetic opioid abuse.

In a recent interview with Sovereign Health, Dr. Schneir warned about novel synthetic drugs, saying, “This U-47700 is just one of many such substances. There has been an explosion of novel synthetic psychoactive medications, including opioids, amphetamine derivatives and synthetic cannabinoids. Sometimes they are manufactured to look like standard prescription or street drugs, so unintentional overdose can easily occur.”

Natasha Heim, a winter rose, reborn

Natasha wrote her last tweet, just hours before she was found unconscious, describing herself as “a self destructive mess.” The week before, she tweeted she’d “like to go someplace quiet” as well as criticized herself for messing up in school.

Her mother, Isobel Heim, said though Natasha was an incredibly creative writer studying communications at Cal State Long Beach, she was becoming increasingly stressed by the demands of college curriculum. She was stressed out in school, but she knew getting a degree was important for both herself and her mother.

“Everything was all getting out of hand, and she was getting upset about it. She wanted to keep going, but she was struggling with it and probably didn’t want to disappoint me or herself.”

Isobel speculated that the cram sessions and mounting anxiety is what may have led to Natasha to drug use at that time. Isobel says her daughter was reportedly on U-4, obtained from a campus student who deals drugs. In addition, Isobel said that a toxicology report showed both uppers and downers in her system.

Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that's skimming through legal loopholes

A photograph of Natasha Heim (Photo by Charles Kudla /For Sovereign Health)

“I can only guess she was taking one drug to stay up and study, then marijuana to wind down, and when that didn’t work, the U-4 to relax, but I don’t know. I don’t know anything about these things.”

Isobel chokes up and tears well as she almost whispers, “I mean she was just with me at Thanksgiving, and I don’t know why she just didn’t talk to me about the stress. I never knew she used serious drugs until after … afterward.”

Isobel adds her daughter had resumed antidepressants this past summer at the counsel of her long-time therapist, and thus, seemed more at ease after the initial culture shock of her first year of college in 2015.

Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that's skimming through legal loopholes

As Isobel’s eyes glaze over and she recounts the final hours with her daughter in the hospital, she explains:

“Between the time she was found unconscious, the ambulance transport and while on life support after they restarted her heart, Natasha just looked like Sleeping Beauty.” With her long, silkily flowing and festively color-flared black hair, and her traditional fully made-up doll face, the “wild spirit” as Isobel describes her left this world, while her body was kept alive a little longer – for miraculous purpose.

Isobel pauses, wipes away fallen tears, and shares how a series of serendipitous events allowed her daughter’s legacy to live on through others.

Natasha at graduation ( Photo provided by Isobel Heim )

“By the dawn of December 1, we knew she was gone. She had no heart rate for 30 minutes between the time she was found and the emergency care getting a heart rate in the hospital. Natasha was brain dead, and when One Legacy, the organ donation organization, came inquiring, I knew it was the right thing to do. Natasha would want that.”

The following day, a cousin of Natasha’s asked if one of her kidneys could be donated to his acquaintance who’d been on a donor list for over two years. “They were a match – though compatibility is extremely slim for a match!”

They went ahead with the transplant, and the woman who received Natasha’s kidney is already recovering well. Ultimately, through the donation organization, Natasha’s kidney, liver, heart, some skin tissue and her cornea will all be donated to different people.

Uncovering U-4: O.C. local succumbs to opioid substance that's skimming through legal loopholes

 Natasha Heim ( Photo provided by Isobel Heim )

Like a winter rose, Natasha’s lifetime began and ended during the solstice season. The bouquet of her life is described by close friends, loved ones and acquaintances as having a colorful and beautiful essence with a dynamic charisma. And like a winter rose, though naturally resilient, her life was cut short by an insidious poison.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series on the substance U-47700 and its lethal, local impact here in Southern California.

Follow this series

Find out more about U-4 in the next two installments of the series:

Check back regularly for developments in the story at SovHealth.com, Facebook or LinkedIn. You can also follow us on Twitter and track the discussion by searching for hashtags #StopU4 and #SovTalk.

About the authors

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a Sovereign Health staff writer, and her intriguing storytelling has been featured with Sovereign Health, KPBS TV/FM, FOX5 News in San Diego and NPR. Her illustrative and relatable approach to digital and broadcast news bridges businesses and consumers, news and community.

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a health information resource, and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model.

For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the authors at news@sovhealth.com.

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