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Mass spectrometry as a forensic science tool in 2020

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By: Pierre Negri

There’s no doubt about it: forensics is at the front line of the criminal justice system. It’s where analytical chemistry has the power to fight crimes. It’s fascinating!

But what excites me is how quickly things change and the speed of innovation. Just think about the progress that’s been made this century. (Can you believe we’re two decades into it already?) It’s enough to blow your mind.

Unfortunately, it’s a two-way street. Not only do science and technology transform the way we combat crime, but they can also affect the methods used to commit the crime itself. Even when technologies are invented to prevent or detect crime, criminals adapt.

The illicit drug trade is an example. The landscape has changed radically in recent years. New psychoactive substances hit the streets every week, and each one is designed to escape detection. Fatalities are increasing, and crime labs have to use more advanced analytical techniques. It’s the only way to keep up with the vast number of samples and suspect compounds.

The cycle of advancing techniques and adapting crimes is inevitable, so we can’t afford to stand still. That’s why new analysis trends continually appear. In recent years, one technology has revolutionized compound analysis and has become a prominent technique in forensic toxicology. So, as we come to the end of this decade, I thought we should look at how this “trend” will see forensic toxicology through the next decade.

Mass spectrometry and forensic toxicology in the next decade
Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) is much more than a trend. It has been widely adopted in the forensic science world. It is a highly sensitive and versatile tool well suited to the identification and quantification of known and unknown substances in complex matrices.

LC-MS is particularly well suited to analyzing samples for suspected drugs of abuse, which is one of the most concerning issues in forensic science right now. Advanced LC-MS based screening methods can detect hundreds of drugs and their metabolites within minutes. When it comes to screening unknown compounds, high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) with data-dependent analysis solves one of the biggest challenges in forensic science.

Now that I’ve set the scene, here are some of the top forensic analysis trends as we move into the next decade. You’ll see how LC-MS fits into this very exciting field of science.

1. Criminal investigations are increasing
Due to increasing austerity in governments around the world, forensic and crime labs will continue to be challenged by limited resources. With increasing numbers of cases, the drive for cost-effective methods that can deliver high throughput along with high accuracy will continue. Decreasing the time and cost of analysis per sample is a priority. This is particularly challenging when analyzing new drugs, which can be time-consuming or even impossible without the right tools.

HRMS can provide comprehensive, full-scan MS and MS/MS data with high mass accuracy. It analyzes the entire sample, without excessive preparation, within minutes. HRMS combines sophisticated configuration options, interchangeable ionization sources and advanced data acquisition capabilities. If you pair this with powerful software for fast and robust data analysis and compound identification, you’ll know why HRMS is one of the preferred techniques for the crime lab.

2. Development of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) isn’t slowing down
NPS are an emerging global threat. Drug use, abuse and deaths are rising as the number of substances increases. While the authorities attempt to crackdown, there is no evidence to suggest that these illicit narcotics are going away any time soon. At the end of 2018, 888 substances were reported to the UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS. We await 2019 numbers, but there’s no doubt that the number will be higher.

Scientists are working with drug compounds and metabolites they have never previously encountered. They need instrumentation for routine comprehensive screening that can handle unusual and rare compounds. This is where “dilute and shoot” techniques combined with LC-MS/MS multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) can help. It’s useful when trying to detect very low levels of a large number of analytes in limited forensic samples. And when it comes to unknowns, there’s very little out there that beats quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (QTOF). It’s ideal for forensic toxicology screening since it enables unknown compounds in complex samples to be identified from information-rich data sets that are analyzed against vast MS/MS spectral libraries.

3. Synthetic cannabinoids and the changing legal landscape
Another category of NPS is synthetic cannabinoids. Often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to cannabis, they can affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana. Their effects can be unpredictable and dangerous, and in some cases, life-threatening. When these dangerous alternatives are added to the changing legal landscape with regards to cannabis legalization and hemp under the Farm Bill, it presents many challenges for forensic and crime labs. There is also a black market of genuine cannabis products that are available in greater diversity and with increasing potency.

4. Forensic trace analysis for fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and opioids
Opioid abuse is a growing epidemic. In the United States, the statistics are shocking. While the authorities are paying attention, the opioid crisis will continue to put pressure on toxicology labs in the next decade. Fentanyl is roughly 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. A lethal dose of fentanyl or a fentanyl analog can be as low as 2 mg. Carfentanil is approximately 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

The challenge for forensic toxicologist is being able to rapidly and safely detect these evolving drugs at trace levels. They are often mixed with other street drugs and are analyzed in the presence of background matrices. The solution is HRMS. It provides a reliable and rapid tool for the analysis of emerging drugs. Scientists can perform a complete chemical characterization of potential opioid compounds that are found in a drug preparation or biological sample obtained for forensic analysis.

5. Field-portable mass spectrometry
The future is portability. Right now, field forensics teams do not typically have portable LC-MS devices. Not only would this enable the on-site investigation of substance use, but it could also reduce the workload for forensic laboratories and speed up criminal investigations.

Sadly, there are some significant barriers preventing this from becoming a reality, particularly with the complexity of the substances being analyzed. Downsizing the power of LC-MS into a portable device that can be operated by most people seems like a lofty goal.

Mass spectrometry as a forensic science tool
The applications of mass spectrometry techniques to forensic science are plentiful and are becoming increasingly diverse. The extremely high specificity of QTOF MS has proven particularly beneficial in the analysis of the ever-increasing number of illicit substances. It can definitively identify and quantify the components in a sample, enabling the forensic toxicologist to determine which illicit drugs or toxic substances have been consumed, intentionally or otherwise.

If you’re interested to learn more about how mass spectrometry can help you with your forensic analysis, check out the SCIEX Forensic Compendium.


About the Author, Pierre Negri

As the forensics global technical marketing lead at SCIEX, Pierre collaborates with global key opinion leaders in the criminalistics and forensic toxicology field to build a better understanding of mass spectrometry for forensic research and practice. He also helps customers develop and implement new mass spectrometry methods with the main focus of determining emerging forensic trends and market needs for a variety of forensic assays and applications.

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