When we think of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we think of a brilliant mind, sharp observation skills and great deductive powers. Actually, he was a highly skilled forensic scientist before the field of forensic science existed. Holmes’ extraordinary talent for deduction is a product of his well-versed training in everything from chemistry to anatomy to ballistics. How did he do it? He integrated his vast knowledge with technology available in the Victorian era, a magnifying glass and a 10-power microscope. Despite a lack of technological options, Holmes was able to decipher the smallest clues and observe the most imperceptible signs to determine the cause of death and figure out who committed the crime. Throughout his cases, Holmes was able to deduce the poison involved in a homicide, typically a heavy metal or natural substance. However, I’m not so sure his forensic prowess alone would work as well in modern day forensic drug testing casework.
While Sherlock Holmes was a fictitious character, modern day forensic scientists use a variety of instruments to identify hundreds of illicit compounds, beyond the typical heavy metals or plant-based poisons used in Victorian England. Technologies such as immunoassays (IA), gas chromatography (GC), liquid chromatography (LC), and mass spectrometry (MS) are routinely used to screen evidence and accurately confirm the identity of the compounds in a sample. Tandem MS (LC-MS/MS) instruments such as the Thermo Scientific™ TSQ Altis™ or TSQ Quantis™ provide confident analysis, quantifying drugs or poisons to below ng/mL concentrations.
As elusive as some of Holmes’ most notorious nemeses, modern criminals have changed their methods with the advancement of technology. With the rise of designer drugs or novel psychoactive substances (NPS) from illegal drug labs, as many as 300 new illicit drugs have flooded the streets in the past 10 years. As soon as an NPS is identified and regulated, a different drug is quickly synthesized, often with closely related properties. Forensic scientists are using high resolution accurate mass spectrometry (HRAM-MS) to further improve their analytical capabilities to identify these fast evolving drugs. Instruments such as the Q Exactive Focus™ with Orbitrap technology from Thermo Scientific™ provide exceptional resolution to 5 decimal places, distinguishing between closely related compounds such synthetic cannabinoids JWH-098 and JWH-081. These two regulated compounds would otherwise be indistinguishable with conventional MS/MS. This resolving power is further put to good use for screening over 1,500 drugs in a single analysis.
Innovations such as mzCloud spectral libraries allow regular updates of newly regulated designer drugs to be shared easily between forensic labs. No doubt modern day forensic scientists have more drugs to look for than Sherlock Holmes did, but mere mortal forensic scientists don’t need the genius of Holmes. By combining the unmatched resolution of Orbitrap technology with the shared data in mzCloud, modern forensic science brings Holmes’ brilliance into the modern laboratory.
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