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No blood? No problem.

CLS researchers solve a drug-related death dilemma

May 2005

by Natalie Gutierrez

The corpse was slumped over a dilapidated couch in an abandoned building - a known hangout for neighborhood crack addicts. Multiple gunshot wounds riddled the badly decomposing body. It had been there for three weeks before a homeless man, looking for a place to sleep, stumbled upon the remains.

Although the gunshot wounds might be evidence enough to reveal the victim was shot to death, toxicology reports indicate the victim had drugs in his system at the time of death. Was the victim high when he was shot? Did he die of an overdose? Was he shot after he died by someone trying to cover up the fact that drugs were involved in the crime? Because of the condition of the body, none of these questions could be answered until now - thanks to research being done by a clinical laboratory sciences student at the Health Science Center.

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 graduate student in the forensic/analytical toxicology track of the master’s degree program in clinical laboratory sciences at the Health Science Center. She is working under the direction of George Kudolo, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical laboratory sciences, and Vincent Papa, Ph.D., forensic toxicologist at Brooks City-Base.

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.

"In some cases where bodies are so badly decomposed, there is no blood to examine. I am working to find out if the remaining undecomposed tissues, such as the muscle or kidney, for example, have quantifiable amounts of the drugs," Barrentine said.

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. She has discovered that a strong correlation exists and hopes that when the method is applied to decomposing tissues, 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.

Dr. Papa, who is Barrentine’s supervising professor, 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," Dr. Papa said.

The Federal-wide Drug Seizure System reported that in 2002 Texas ranked first in the country in the amount of cocaine and marijuana seized by federal officers, second in the amount of methamphetamine seized, and third in the amount of heroin seized. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, drug-related crimes have increased in Texas. In 2003 nearly 100,000 arrests were made for drug possession in Texas.

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."

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Updated 7/30/14