Adam Hall began his master’s degree program in chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern while performing instrumental analyses on samples in the Massachusetts State Police crime lab.
“Tuesdays and Thursdays were drug days,” he recalls.
Narcotics officers, who live under-cover on the streets buying and selling drugs, would descend on the lab with thousands of samples, which each requiring a 30-minute compositional analysis. The analytical queues in crime labs also include pre-employment drug screens, parolee urine samples, methadone maintenance surveys and performance-enhancing drug screens for athletes.
“Despite numerous instruments running analyses non-stop, this amounts to a significant backlog,” says Hall, who joined Professor Paul Vouros’ research lab as a Co-op-PhD candidate in 2008 after completing his MS. “A person may sit in jail before a confirmation hearing for several months or a year, waiting on the results of a single analysis.”
Prior to meeting Hall, Vouros — who doubles as a senior faculty member in Northeastern’s Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis — had begun collaborating with a now defunct high-tech company on chemical applications for its mini-ion filter, which is about the size of a dime. When placed in the front end of a mass spectrometer, the small analytical instrument separates and identifies charged molecules based on their mobility in a carrier gas. When Hall joined the lab, the company’s prototypes found new life.
Current drug analysis techniques, he said, separate all of a sample’s components using time-consuming liquid- or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry methods, which obtain a characteristic mass for each. These tests, he said, take about half an hour to perform and require a blank cleaning run between every analysis. In contrast, Hall’s ion-filtration technique takes only a few seconds.
Hall said other rapid techniques are available to criminal investigators in the field, but are not conclusive and their results are not robust. Typical ion filtration systems, he noted, are large and stationary. His mini-ion filter, however, can interface with most mass spectrometers used in forensic labs and, most importantly, would be ideal for improving the performance capabilities of smaller mass spectrometers being developed for field use.
“Adam’s work is at the point where it has been fully defined and can be done,” says Vouros, whose interest in forensics was encouraged by Dr. Richard Saferstein, a noted criminologist and longtime supporter of the Barnett Institute.
In a parallel effort, Vouros’ lab will use the same techniques to develop new applications, optimizing the system to analyze a broader range of compounds. In one project, another PhD student is developing methods to identify specific biomarkers associated with DNA damage from cigarette smoke.
“We are showing now that we can save 95 percent of the time for these types of studies,” Vouros said.