Metabolites Uncover Drug Usage History In Post-Death Skeletal Analysis

By John Lavitt 10/08/15

Dem bones are the last line in determining a deceased person's past drug use.

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Scientists in Canada have developed a new approach to use metabolites to uncover drug usage history in post-skeletal analysis. For several years, bone has been seen as a potential biological matrix for toxicological analysis in forensic cases where extensive decomposition of the body has taken place. Since the remaining tissues are not viable, bone analysis becomes the only way to determine drug use history.

The new approach is based on investigation into both forensic cases as well as controlled drug exposure animal studies in the lab. Although there is no doubt that drugs can be detected in human skeletons, it is far more difficult to determine dosages and any overall pattern of drug use by the deceased. Establishing the interval between drug taking and death is essential in forensic investigations. In addition, possible culpability is based on whether the victim took single or repeated doses.

In Canada, scientists James Watterson, Candice Fraser and Heather Cornthwaite from Laurentian University in Sudbury have been working on the theory that the relationship between the levels of a drug and its metabolites in bone could reveal the pattern of use. Given promising preliminary results, they have now developed an efficient method for extracting the drugs from skeletal tissue. Not only revealing drug usage history, this new process will allow investigators to perform the analysis far more quickly.

The research team chose to work with dextromethorphan and its principal metabolite dextrorphan. In model experiments, the drug was administered to rats. After being put to sleep, the rats were buried in a forested area and their bodies were allowed to decompose. After an interval of time, the bones were retrieved, ground up and subjected to a double-stage extraction to recover the drugs.

Discussing the research teams success, Professor James Watterson explained that we achieved, “analysis of dextromethorphan and dextrorphan in decomposed skeletal tissues by microwave assisted extraction, microplate solid-phase extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.”

The key to learning about drug history is to measure the levels of the drugs in bone. The new methodology will be suitable for extracting and measuring drugs from bones, enabling studies to establish drug-taking patterns. Besides marking a significant increase in the speed of extraction and analysis, the process will be automated in the future. The principles can be extended to the analysis of other drugs in skeletal tissues.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.