Isotope Profiling of Drugs: A Tool to Disrupt Organized Crime

Isotope Profiling of Drugs: A Tool to Disrupt Organized Crime

In early 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Niamh NicDaeid and Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein to discuss their work on Isotope Profiling of Drugs: A Tool to Disrupt Organized Crime, Detect Serious Crime and Reduce Volume Crime. This project was funded by the EPSRC and fell under the transnational organized crime theme of the Global Uncertainties project.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your research backgrounds, and how you ended up working on this project together? 

 Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein: My background is in bioorganic chemistry, and earlier in my career I had done work on biochemical pathways based on radioactive tracer studies. My work had involved mass spectrometry and looking at very small differences in isotopic abundance for stable isotopes in an increasingly precise fashion. I became interested in the various potential applications of stable isotope tracers and became involved in the forensic isotope ratio mass spectrometry network. However, I felt that I did not know enough about what was being done forensically at the time. At that point, I contacted Niamh, and we were invited to an EPSRC sandpit where we were exploring how stable isotope data might add another independent variable to data that Niamh was looking at already.

Professor Niamh NicDaeid: I am an analytical chemist with a background in chemistry and mathematics. I am also a forensic practitioner and undertake case work in fire investigation, investigation of explosives and the examination of illicit drugs. I have applied data analytics to chemical data with the goal of exploring inferences that the data may produce. Our work on a PaCCS-funded project emerged from some work I had been doing on the chemical characterization of drugs, which focused on the synthesis and characterization of ecstasy and methamphetamine. These drugs are synthetic, and we were interested in repetitively synthesizing materials using all of the known methods used by clandestine laboratories to make the same drug, with the same materials, under the same conditions. Inferences about chemical differences in these drugs were being made by forensic practitioners and we wanted to get a better sense of what repetitive synthesis could tell us, and to get chemical profiles of the impurities that were being produced and the inorganic elements that might be present. So, the project grew from there – we put in a grant application to include a range of external partners and received funding which supported our work and the work of two PhD students.

Q: What were some of the key outcomes of your research?

Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein: Including conference proceedings, books, and papers, there were more than a dozen written outcomes which emerged from this work. Moreover, our research prompted a response from police professionals – one wrote an article about our work, while others at the Australian Federal Police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration to name just two adopted our toolkit as a standard technique. Ultimately, by cooking these synthetic drugs several times and then studying the products, we were able to understand the isotopic signatures, and develop databases which could shed light on the recipes used by criminals when developing drugs later seized by police. We might be able to infer what kind of synthetic route had been used to make that drug, making it easier for the police to build a link between clandestine labs to particular drug distribution organizations. 

Professor Niamh NicDaeid: Our results produced a lot of useful complimentary information that allowed us to open up doors with different law enforcement organizations, including the Australian Federal Police, the Drug Enforcement Laboratory in Washington, and the Royal Malaysian police.  Beyond that, translating the research demonstrated that when we create a data set through repetitive synthesis, we can get meaningful information about the reproducibility of the process and a solid understanding of the synthesised material. This enabled us to begin conversations which gave others the confidence to extend this type of research into other areas such as explosives.  We also ended up working on a side project on fibres, where we looked at the stable isotope profiling of un-dyed cotton – through that we could provenance cotton, and we ended up speaking to people in the Egyptian cotton industry who were interested in combatting the presence of fraudulent materials in the marketplace.

Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein: I also spoke with American colleagues who were interested in the applications of our cotton toolkit for custom and excise purposes –with some there interested in using it to identify the origin countries of materials so that people could not avoid import taxes.

Q: Do you think your research changed the conversation around the use of these kinds of scientific tools?

Professor Niamh NicDaeid: We were able to take what we did and bring our findings to areas that stretched beyond the domains of forensic science, and our work pre-empted a 2015 report from Mark Walport which suggested that the forensic analytical approach should be applied to other areas such as product authentication. A REF impact case study also emerged from our work, which generated impact at the coalface. Looking back at what we did, I would say that the UK would now benefit from doing stable isotopic profiling in new areas such as synthetic benzodiazepines, synthetic cannabinoids and other Novel Psychoactive Substances that flood the illicit drug market.  Other countries are now benefitting from the work that we undertook while unfortunately the UK’s capability in stable isotopic work within the forensic science domain has waned and I think there is a need for the UK to re-invest in this technology and to capitalize on the national expertise in this area.

Q: What is next for research in this area?

Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein: Right now, advances on our work and really robust outputs are being made by colleagues in Europe, the United States, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and others. Going forward, I think we need to do more to support funding in forensic science research in the United Kingdom, to match the advances that others are now making. For example, the Australians and the Dutch are now studying synthesized explosives, while colleagues at the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States have done an exceedingly good job on the subject of stable isotope profiling of cocaine and combining these multivariate stable isotope signatures with chemical signatures. They now extend this approach to fentanyl and its derivatives. The European Drugs Agency (EMCDDA) contracted to me to design a protocol for provenancing cannabis using multivariate stable isotope profiles. I have also been involved more recently in cases on human remains, using stable isotopes to determine where unidentified persons may have previously lived. I have also done some advisory work for the Netherland’s Forensic Institute – another government institute which has decided to set up its own stable isotope laboratory – on identifying the production batches used for duct tape then used to bundle drugs and money. We are not doing this kind of work in the UK anymore, which is a real shame. We also need to foster more conversations about the validity of tools used in forensic science, how safe are convictions, and the vital role of longitudinal studies and data-basing to underpin and validate not just forensic stable isotope analysis as tools for successful investigations.

Q: We are nearly out of time, but is there anything else you want to add before we finish up?

Professor Niamh NicDaeid: The summary for me is that from an initial investment out of an EPSRC sandpit that we both attended, we put together a grant proposal, got funded, and carried out a project which supported doctoral students and then proliferated. We demonstrated a proof of concept, we worked with practitioners to demonstrate that our work was scientifically validatable and sufficiently rigorous to appear in a court of law. While the implementation of our work was initially within the UK forensic science area, our work has influenced significant subsequent developments in Australia, the United States, the Netherlands, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. That initial EPSRC funding created a real UK success story.

Outputs from this project included Emerging Use of Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry as a Tool for Discrimination of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine by Synthetic RouteOrganic impurities, stable isotopes, or both: A comparison of instrumental and pattern recognition techniques for the profiling of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamineInfluence of precursor solvent extraction on stable isotope signatures of methylamphetamine prepared from over-the-counter medicines using the Moscow and Hypophosphorous routesUsing isotopic fractionation to link precursor to product in the synthesis of (±)-mephedrone.  A new tool for combating ‘legal high’ drugs Forensic stable isotope signatures: Comparing, geo-locating, detecting linkage. You can also learn more about this work in the book  Stable Isotope Forensics: Methods and Forensic Applications of Stable Isotope Analysis, 2nd edition .