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Bournemouth University forensic toxicologist on how cutting edge technology helps us understand complex illegal drugs

PUBLISHED: 15:07 04 February 2015 | UPDATED: 15:07 04 February 2015

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David Osselton, a forensic toxicologist at Bournemouth University, explains how cutting edge technology is helping scientists to understand ever more complex illegal drugs

Poisoning is a widely used plot device in fiction, with Agatha Christie being a prime example, using poison as a means of disposing of victims in over 60 of her novels. For readers of fiction, the element of pre-meditation holds a particular fascination as the successful criminal has to plan the crime in great detail. Fortunately for forensic toxicologists, the ‘ideal’ poison – one which is odourless, tasteless, colourless, has delayed onset, mimics natural disease and is undetectable – is almost impossible to obtain.

The Victorian era heralded an age of discovery in which experimentation and knowledge relating to medicine and chemistry rapidly developed. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the development of modern forensic toxicology. Poisons were readily available in both day-to-day products and in medications. The medical philosophy at the time was that illness could be treated with low doses of poison which mimicked its symptoms. Arsenic poisoning was common as it was widely available in a popular tonic and frequently used in women’s make-up to produce pale complexions.

This was also a time when life insurance policies became commonplace. For just a few pence, even the poorest could take out a policy against the life of a child, and gain several pounds in the event of his or her death. Newspapers reported the progress of poisoning trials - often in grisly detail - and the general public knew the symptoms associated with poisoning, and how they could be mistaken for illness. Poisons such as strychnine, aconitine and hyoscine, substances which could create symptoms readily confused with natural diseases, were easily accessible from pharmacies.

For the scientists involved in bringing criminals to justice, identifying the poisons used was an unreliable and often personally dangerous task. Dr George Lamson, Bournemouth’s famous poisoner (1881), along with Dr Harvey Hawley Crippen (1910) and many others met their fate on the gallows following the identification methods used by early forensic toxicologists. Methods of identification ranged from having to taste the extracts of liver and stomach contents, to injecting those extracts into frogs, or adding a few drops into the eyes of rabbits to observe the reactions. In a modern courtroom, these tests would be torn to pieces, but at that time they were regarded as state of the art and irrefutable.

Today we have an amazing array of analytical instrumentation available to assist us in the challenge of detecting hundreds of drugs and poisons in minute concentrations. We can detect traces of drugs in hair to provide a history of an individual’s drug use and DNA technology is now used to determine whether symptoms of poisoning may be explained by our genetic make-up.

The majority of forensic toxicology cases submitted for examination today involve driving under the influence of drugs and sexual assault, where victims are intoxicated through alcohol or drugs. Challenges now lie with the identification of a frightening range of substances being sold via the internet referred to as “legal highs” - although in reality these substances that have no legitimate medical use and have not been tested on humans. With new drugs being introduced to the illicit drugs market on a regular basis, the work undertaken by scientists at Bournemouth University to understand how drugs and poisons affect our bodies takes on a new urgency. Not only can this research aid our understanding of the effects of illegal drugs, it can also be used to combat drug-induced illnesses.

Professor David Osselton previously worked for the Home Office Forensic Science Service. He is now a forensic toxicologist based at Bournemouth University, where he carries out research into drug analysis. ‘Poisons is my business’ was the subject of his lecture at last year’s Festival of Learning. For details of this year’s event, visit bournemouth.ac.uk/fol-register.

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