Forensic toxicologists hold CLUES to solving crime
Ever since Cain’s murder of Abel in the Bible, the question, “Whodunit?” has captivated the interest of people throughout the ages.
While recent generations have grown up reading Agatha Christie novels, playing the board game “Clue” or watching the popular “CSI” TV series, real-world murder mysteries are being solved every day in medical examiner’s offices by teams with specialized training.
“It’s not done exactly like you see it on ‘CSI,'” said George Kudolo, Ph.D., professor of clinical laboratory sciences and coordinator of the Graduate Toxicology Program at the UT Health Science Center. “You do have crime scene investigators who go out to gather evidence, but forensic toxicologists conduct the laboratory tests. They are the ones who prove what substances were in the body at the time of death, and their work plays an important part in assisting the medical examiner in making the final determination on the cause and manner of death.”
Since 1996, the School of Health Professions has offered the only forensic toxicology master’s degree in South Texas that prepares graduates for immediate employment in the Toxicology Division of the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office. “Five out of our 11 laboratory staff members are from the Health Science Center,” said Chief Toxicologist Rod McCutcheon.
“The students in our forensics and toxicology track actually work in the medical examiner’s office as part of their education and training, and they are often snapped up for employment before completing their degrees,” Dr. Kudolo explained, noting that the medical examiner’s office is tucked away on the Health Science Center campus. “Our graduates have also been hired by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.”
During their course work, students learn by studying real cases at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
During their course work, students learn by studying real cases. This helps them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to begin solving cause-of-death mysteries right from the start, Dr. Kudolo said.
Students who choose to conduct research as part of their master’s degree have made some significant scientific contributions to the profession.
For example, 2003 graduate Tiffany Flowers conducted research on the date rape drug gamma-hydroxybutyric acid. Since GHB is sometimes produced in the body after death, reliable tests for this chemical’s post-mortem presence could mean the difference between prison time and freedom for suspects. Flowers presented her findings at several professional meetings and it was featured in the Texas Association for Clinical Laboratory Science newsletter. Shirlyn McKenzie, Ph.D., now chairman emeritus of the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, said, “Tiffany’s findings are important contributions to understanding this date rape drug’s effects and its detection.”
In 2005, Andrea Barrentine discovered a reliable way to test for drugs in decomposed bodies when no blood was available for testing. Barrentine discovered that other tissues can be used to determine the concentration of drugs in human organs. Her mentor, Vincent Papa, Ph.D., forensic toxicologist at Brooks City-Base, said her groundbreaking research was 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.
2007 graduate Veronica Hargrove conducted studies on blood versus muscle concentrations of various drugs. Her research was published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology in 2008, and an additional paper involving her research will be submitted later this year.
Now, 2009 graduate Nicole Thompson has just completed research examining alcohol in decomposed bodies when no body fluids are available for testing. Like GHB, alcohol can be produced during the decomposition process. Thompson studied the potential for alcohol production in muscle as the state of decomposition progresses.
“We knew the body produced some alcohol during decomposition, but the results were somewhat surprising,” said McCutcheon, her study mentor. “I didn’t think we would see as much alcohol produced as we did. This demonstrates that a significant amount of alcohol can be produced during the post-mortem process and that the interpretation of the findings has to be carefully evaluated when determining cause of death.” McCutcheon and Thompson are submitting the study to several journals for consideration.
Once again, careful analysis has played its part, but the extra contribution of thoughtful research will now guide decisions in future murder mysteries.