Michael Feasel

Michael Feasel

Vitals

Current affiliation: U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center

Age: 31

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Maryland, Baltimore

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: A pilot or astronaut. “Exploring the infinite volume of space and potentially finding new worlds and new life is extremely humbling.”

If I were an element, I would be: Carbon. “It may appear boring and basic, but it is the element from which all life (as we know it) grows. Four simple bonds have made bacteria, humans, and sea otters; roses and redwoods; creatures of air, sea, and land. And that’s just what we’re aware of.”

Few chemists can point to Nicolas Cage as inspiration for their career, but the actor’s role as a chemical weapons expert in the 1996 film “The Rock” spurred Michael Feasel to seek a similar post. “It’s a hokey movie, but I realized that somewhere in government this job exists. So at college, I did everything to prepare myself for it,” Feasel says.

After bingeing on toxicology and chemistry courses as an undergrad, Feasel nabbed a staff job at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). He started out by studying the health impacts of smokes and obscurants used by the military in war zones.

Then, in 2012, a report by British chemical weapons specialists inspired a shift in Feasel’s focus. Solving a long-standing mystery, the British team had determined the chemical components of a spray used in 2002 by Russian special forces to resolve a hostage crisis in a Moscow theater. The aerosol, which helped end the standoff but also cost the lives of more than 120 hostages, likely contained two powerful synthetic opioids: carfentanil and remifentanil.

Research at a glance

The synthetic opioid carfentanil is 10,000 times as strong as morphine and can easily cause overdoses. Feasel is studying how opioids such as this one break down into metabolites in the body to understand why the drugs are so potent. Identifying the metabolites could also help identify people who have overdosed. Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

The synthetic opioid carfentanil is 10,000 times as strong as morphine and can easily cause overdoses. Feasel is studying how opioids such as this one break down into metabolites in the body to understand why the drugs are so potent. Identifying the metabolites could also help identify people who have overdosed.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

Carfentanil is 10,000 times as strong as morphine. It’s typically used in dart guns to subdue rhinoceroses and other game animals, Feasel says. More recently, carfentanil has also been responsible for the deaths of multiple people across the U.S. who took heroin or cocaine laced with the opioid.

But at the time of the Moscow theater standoff, chemists had never characterized how carfentanil broke down in the human body to form metabolites, molecules that would have been found in the urine and blood of victims. So as part of his day job at ECBC, Feasel started a Ph.D. to do just that, discovering unexpected human metabolites of carfentanil and trying to understand if and how they are toxic to humans.

Having completed his degree, Feasel is now developing experimental strategies to do the same for other synthetic opioids. “The fruits of his research provide critical information to combat the ongoing epidemic of opioid use,” adds Christopher Whalley, Feasel’s toxicology supervisor at ECBC.

Three key papers

Metabolism of Carfentanil, an Ultra-Potent Opioid, in Human Liver Microsomes and Human Hepatocytes by High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry” (AAPS J. 2016, DOI: 10.1208/s12248-016-9963-5)

Inhalation Toxicology of Riot Control Agents,” in Inhalation Toxicology, 3rd ed., ed. Harry Salem and Sidney A. Katz (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2015), 211–244, DOI: 10.1201/b16781-12

Incapacitating agents,” in Salem and Katz, Inhalation Toxicology, 245–256, DOI: 10.1201/b16781-13


Feasel spoke at the American Chemical Society national meeting on Aug. 21 in Washington, D.C., about how he’s learning about drugs and other potentially hazardous compounds, even when no clinical data exist. Watch to learn more about how this work could help soldiers on the battlefield and those fighting the opioid epidemic.
Credit: C&EN/ACS Productions

Vitals

Current affiliation: U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center

Age: 31

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Maryland, Baltimore

If I weren’t a chemist, I would be: A pilot or astronaut. “Exploring the infinite volume of space and potentially finding new worlds and new life is extremely humbling.”

If I were an element, I would be: Carbon. “It may appear boring and basic, but it is the element from which all life (as we know it) grows. Four simple bonds have made bacteria, humans, and sea otters; roses and redwoods; creatures of air, sea, and land. And that’s just what we’re aware of.”

Daniel DiRocco
Renee Frontiera