As the opioid epidemic has devastated communities around the country, law enforcement personnel have seized increasing amounts of suspicious, potentially toxic substances. At the same time, government forensic laboratories have been inundated with requests to quickly analyze and identify these drugs while keeping employees safe.
To help forensics labs handle the workload, Edward Sisco, a 32-year-old research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, developed an approach that has reduced the time it takes to analyze these substances from hours to seconds and protected lab workers from exposure to the potentially dangerous toxic material.
“Ed Sisco is establishing a new way of analyzing drugs,” said Amber Burns of the Maryland State Police Forensics Sciences Division. “The big picture is that his work will change how drug samples are treated in the lab and increase the information we can provide to investigators, the courts and public health officials.”
Sisco’s new detection technique requires special instruments and is so sensitive that only invisible trace amounts of material are needed for analysis. The method involves wiping the outside of baggies and other packages containing unknown substances and then analyzing the wipe without opening the containers. This process provides a new layer of protection for forensic chemists and for police officers who seize drugs.
While the technique needs further testing and certification before it can replace current protocols and before the results can be accepted as evidence in the courts, forensic labs can now use Sisco’s new method for quick and accurate screening.
The technique—Thermal Desorption Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry, or TD-DART-MS—correctly identified 92% of the substances swiped, and 100% of fentanyl and other opioids analyzed in a study conducted by Sisco.
“We believe this technology has the opportunity to be a powerful tool that will be able to differentiate many samples very quickly and affirmatively identify them,” said Luther Schaeffer, a scientist with the Department of Homeland Security. “Ed is changing the landscape and has developed something that will be usable and accessible.”
David Holbrook, Jr., a NIST division chief, agreed. “His work has had a tremendous impact on the forensics science community,” Holbrook said. ”He has the technical skills, really understands the science and he is getting his work out to the broader community. That is the secret sauce.”
Joe Bennett, a research chemist and a leader in the agency’s Materials Measurement Science Division, said Sisco also has helped labs and employees across the country use and implement the new technology. Later, he has checked in with the labs to discuss problems
Early on, Sisco realized that convincing labs to use this new technology required him to collaborate with them and better understand their problems. He worked closely with state police labs in Maryland and Vermont to research and test detection and decontamination techniques, and has collaborated with the Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection.
Burns said she plans to install a TD-DART-MS instrument in her Maryland State Police crime lab. She said rush requests for analysis currently take hours to process, but with the new instrument, “we can wipe the package and they are on their way in two minutes.”
To make drug identification easier for practitioners, Sisco partnered with the National Institute of Justice to develop software that searches a database for matches to unknown compounds analyzed by the labs. So far, he has created more than 500 entries for the database.
Sisco said his biggest challenge is “getting labs and older forensic scientists to change” since the new technique requires new instruments and displays data differently. He also said introducing a new method is difficult in the forensics community because it must follow accredited protocols and legal requirements to maintain the integrity of analyses.
Sisco said he has dealt with these challenges by explaining to leaders of the labs that the new technique will not replace the current method yet, but will help them get an identification faster. And because the new instruments are expensive, Sisco has shown lab officials that the technique can be used for other types of analysis besides drugs, improving the cost-benefit calculation.
“He was not dissuaded by those who said the technology is too hard to use,” Schaeffer said. “He keeps pounding on the door, trying to make it easier and more accessible. He does not give up.”
While he is pleased with the new technology and its capabilities, Sisco said he is most proud of establishing a network of labs around the country to foster collaboration.
“It allows us to understand the needs of the users rather than acting on what we think are the pressing issues,” Sisco said. “We talk together and openly, share problems or struggles, and we work as a community to arrive at answers as opposed to taking a siloed approach, which usually happens.”
Sisco said his goal is to get lab officials to see that “what is currently being done can be more efficient and better.”