The generous support of the Supplemental Training for Education Program (STEP) through the SOT Education Committee Graduate Subcommittee afforded me the opportunity to attend the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education’s Postmortem Interpretive Toxicology course at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Center is a leader in the field of forensic science education, training, and research. This four-day lecture-style course was directed by renown forensic toxicologist Dr. Barry Logan and featured board certified forensic toxicologists Drs. Wendy Adams, William Anderson, Edward Barbieri, Lee Blum, Daniel Isenschmid, Sherri Kacinko, Laura Labay, Robert Middleberg, and Karen Scott, as well as Mr. Matthew McMullin and Ms. Donna Papsun, and forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Catanese.
Postmortem toxicology involves the use of analytical techniques to identify and quantify chemicals in biological matrices collected during autopsy to help establish the cause of death. This is one of the most challenging areas of forensic science because of the range of considerations that scientists need to apply to their analysis and interpretation of the results, which is very complex. The Postmortem Interpretive Toxicology course covered all aspects of toxicological death investigation from specimen collection to analytical methods and death certification. Additionally, the course provided a comprehensive review of the pharmacology and toxicology of the major drug classes associated with drug-induced fatalities. These classes include opioids, depressants, stimulants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, gases, and cyanide, in addition to other chemicals such as metals, pesticides, and chemical warfare agents that are tested for less frequently.
One of the most exciting parts of attending this course was learning about postmortem drug redistribution (PMR). The PMR is the movement of drugs within the body after death resulting in changing drug concentrations. The underlying mechanisms of PMR involve the diffusion of drugs from the gastrointestinal tract, liver, lungs, and myocardium into the blood. As a result, postmortem blood concentrations are not equivalent to antemortem blood concentrations. The occurrence and severity of PMR depend on multiple factors including drug characteristics (e.g., volume of distribution, lipophilicity, and pKa), dosage, body orientation, putrefaction as well as intervals between drug ingestion, death, and sample collection. Generally, basic lipophilic drugs with a large volume of distribution are susceptible to PMR. Examples include barbiturates, amphetamines, cocaine, morphine, digoxin, and tricyclic antidepressants. Additional factors that can influence postmortem drug concentrations exclusive of PMR also were discussed. These factors include differential distribution at the time of death, postmortem drug metabolism, trauma artifacts, and sample origin. In general, drugs subject to PMR will exhibit higher central blood concentrations compared to those of peripheral specimens. For that reason, blood from a clamped or ligated femoral vein is preferred to cardiac blood for quantitative determinations.
When I finish my doctoral degree in toxicology at Rutgers University, I aim to pursue a career as a forensic toxicologist. The knowledge I have obtained as a result of attending this course will be instrumental in my path towards achieving this goal. This course has addressed knowledge gaps in my toxicology training and has given me a deeper understanding of the complexities of postmortem toxicology. As a result, it has encouraged me to do more research into this field and seek out additional training opportunities in areas such as forensic pharmacology and instrumental analysis in order to broaden my knowledge and enhance my marketability.
Attending the Postmortem Interpretive Toxicology course also allowed me to network with experts and trainees alike. There were plenty of opportunities to connect and discuss the material with the program faculty and students throughout the course. Lectures were designed to encourage participation. I appreciated the speakers’ willingness to answer questions during their presentations rather than at the end, which allowed me to better understand the material as it was being presented. Additionally, the program faculty gave us their contact information so that we can reach them with any further questions. I plan on conducting informational interviews with some of the faculty in the near future. We also had the opportunity to network with forensic toxicologists while on a site visit to NMS Labs, a leader in clinical and forensic toxicology testing. We had dinner and conversed with several of the NMS toxicologists before receiving a tour of the laboratory facilities. I really enjoyed having the chance to see the instrumentation and watch some of the analysis take place.
I am grateful for this wonderful experience and strongly encourage my fellow graduate students to seek out unique training opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable at their home institutions. The next application deadline for STEP applications is October 9.