No blood? No problem. HSC researchers solve a drug-related death dilemma
In the past, when a badly decomposed body arrived at the Bexar County Forensic Science Center, forensic toxicologists faced a dilemma if the blood in the corpse had dried up. But not anymore, thanks to the work of researchers in the School of Allied Health Sciences at the Health Science Center. They’ve discovered a method that answers questions surrounding drug-related deaths, even when a decomposed body yields no blood to test.
Andrea Barrentine works quietly in a laboratory, meticulously homogenizing pieces of human tissue – liver, brain, muscle or kidney – into a broth. What might sound macabre to most is routine for this future forensic toxicologist. Barrentine is a recent graduate of the forensic/analytical toxicology track of the master’s degree program in clinical laboratory sciences at the Health Science Center. Barrentine uses established techniques to determine the concentration of drugs such as opiates (heroin, opium or morphine) and stimulants such as cocaine in human organs. Once she has created a broth out of the human tissues, Barrentine performs a solid phase extraction, a technique used to extract drugs from body fluids. She employs the help of gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS) to carefully determine the concentration of the drugs.
“The GC/MS gives me a chemical fingerprint of the drugs so I can tell exactly which drugs are present and their level of concentration,” she said.
Barrentine compares blood and tissue samples to determine if similarities exist in the levels of drugs found. In some cases where bodies are so badly decomposed, there is no blood to examine. She has discovered that a strong correlation exists between these tissues, especially muscle, and the blood.
“I have found that the remaining undecomposed tissues have quantifiable amounts of the drugs,” Barrentine said. When the method is applied to decomposing bodies, forensic toxicologists will be able to predict what the levels of drugs would have been in the blood at the time of a victim’s death.
George Kudolo, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical laboratory sciences, and Vincent Papa, Ph.D., forensic toxicologist at Brooks City-Base, directed Barrentine’s work in the lab.
Dr. Papa said her groundbreaking research is an invaluable contribution to the field of forensics. “Because of Andrea’s findings, medical examiners will be able to make some definitive statements about the cause of death of many unsolved drug-related crime victims,” he said.
Experts at the Bexar County Forensic Science Center said that within the past three years they have processed more than 500 cases of death resulting from drugs or other toxic substances.
James Garriott, Ph.D., a forensic toxicologist and former chief of toxicology at the Bexar County Forensic Science Center, said Barrentine’s research will be valuable in more ways than one.
“Not only will Andrea’s research help forensic toxicologists and medical examiners answer questions concerning drug use circumstances during routine autopsies, it may assist families of the deceased to be better able to deal with insurance questions and claims,” Dr. Garriott said. “Finally, it may help provide closure to family members seeking answers to circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one.”