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NIJ Announces $1.9M to Fund Research in Public Forensic Laboratories in 2023

Since 2015, NIJ has administered a dedicated program to support research within forensic laboratories.

On September 26, 2023, NIJ announced $1.9 million in funding to support five new projects under its Research and Evaluation for the Testing and Interpretation of Physical Evidence in Publicly Funded Forensic Laboratories (Public Labs R&E) program. Through its forensic science research funding, NIJ continues to improve the examination and interpretation of physical evidence across the community of practice through identification of the most efficient, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective methods of analysis.

“This new research will help us understand the critical needs in public labs and identify operational and administrative efficiencies to support investigative and forensic work,” according to Janine Zweig, NIJ’s senior science advisor.  

Funding Highlights for 2023

Since 2015, NIJ has invested over $12 million in 43 projects under its Public Labs R&E program. The program was developed specifically to enable research at public forensic laboratories to identify efficient, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective methods of analysis. The goal is to use evaluation and improvement of existing laboratory protocols, or comparison of an existing protocol to an emerging method, to develop techniques or protocols that can be shared with the forensic community and benefit or aid decision-making by lab directors and other forensic administrators.

The following are this year’s new projects:

  • Evaluation of the Luxon Ion Source for Rapid Screening in Forensic Laboratories, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, NC ($319,172)
    Forensic toxicology laboratories are facing increased workloads due to case volume and an expanding and changing analytical scope. As funding levels and workforce are not keeping up, there is a need for greater efficiency that, in part, can be met by implementing new technology such as direct mass spectrometry for drug screening. This project will evaluate one type of direct mass spectrometry technology, the Luxon Ion Source, coupled to two different mass spectrometers. The Luxon will be validated on its ability to meet the minimum scope and sensitivity requirements in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Standards Board (ASB) standard for blood. Case samples will also be analyzed to compare screening workflows for time, cost-efficiency, and screening and confirmation results in collaboration with North Carolina State Crime Laboratory (NCSCL).
  • Analytical Challenges with Proliferating THC Analogues, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA ($726,360)
    Lab-created THC analogs — such as Δ8-THC, Δ10-THC, Δ6a10a-THC, THC-Os, CBD-di-O, THCP isomers, THCB isomers, THCH isomers, exo-THC, and HHC — are easily synthesized from CBD and/or Δ9-THC. The biomarkers for these analogs, which would be used to indicate exposure and use, are unknown. This project will assess presumptive testing interferences of the emerging THC analogs and validate a confirmation and quantitative analytical method for the forensic toxicology community in conjunction with the Washington D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Project activities include the monitoring of e-liquids in the marketplace as a bellwether of emerging analogs, to develop and validate a method for product and biological tissue analysis, and to assess immunoassay cross-reactivity of emerging THC analogs and biomarkers with Δ9-THC-COOH targets. Expected outcomes include understanding drug testing interferences in presumptive analyses and an adoptable robust analytical method for emerging THC analogs to provide more information for public health and public safety stakeholders. 
  • Pivoting Headspace Ethanol Analysis to Accommodate Modern Day Scenarios, Virginia Department of Forensic Science, Richmond, VA ($371,593)
    Helium, a nonrenewable gas, has historically been employed by forensic science laboratories as a carrier gas for gas chromatography methods, including blood alcohol analysis, which is arguably the most common analytical test requested in forensic toxicology laboratories. A global helium crisis has significantly impacted the availability of helium, leaving laboratories scrambling to find alternative approaches for analytical methods.

    This project will develop and validate two methods for the identification and quantitation of ethanol and other volatile compounds in whole blood and additional biological matrices using headspace gas chromatography dual column flame ionization detection in accordance with ANSI/ASB Standard 036, Standard Practices for Method Validation in Forensic Toxicology. The developed methods will be compared with existing helium carrier gas methodologies using authentic biological specimens.
  • New Age Therapeutics: Development and Validation of an Analytical Workflow for the Analysis of Psychedelics in Biological Matrices, Virginia Department of Forensic Science, Richmond, VA ($441,886)
    Depression affects over 264 million individuals worldwide. Since 2018, noteworthy advancements in new age treatments have been made for treatment-resistant depression, including medicinal applications of psychedelics. These advances have propagated legislative initiatives and reform regarding psychedelic compounds, including medical applications, decriminalization, and legalization of psychedelic compounds. These legislative changes directly impact forensic toxicology laboratories nationwide, which are left to develop and validate new analytical workflows for the identification and quantitation of these analytically challenging psychedelic compounds for driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) and postmortem cases.
    This project will develop and validate an analytical workflow for the identification and quantitation of psychedelic compounds in whole blood and additional biological matrices using a combination of high-resolution mass spectrometry and LC-MS/MS in accordance with the ANSI/ASB Standard 036, Standard Practices for Method Validation in Forensic Toxicology. The stability of these psychedelic compounds and their prevalence will also be investigated. The results of this study will enable laboratories to make data-driven decisions regarding these complex analytes.
  • Study of Factors Influencing Mass Spectral Data Comparison, Kentucky Department of State Police, Frankfort, KY ($69,835)
    Seized drug identification by forensic laboratories is considered a mature discipline, yet standardization of data interpretation across laboratories remains an ongoing effort. Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is a frequently used analytical technique in seized-drugs analysis, but subjective interpretation of mass spectra (MS) data can introduce variability. This study aims to understand the decision-making process of trained analysts when comparing electron impact (EI) MS data and to inform criteria and standardization for spectral data comparison. Using a survey and eye-tracking technology, the researchers will investigate the priorities of analysts when comparing MS data, analyze whether a focus on specific spectral characteristics leads to more accurate comparisons, and identify factors affecting MS quality determination. The outcomes will aid in ensuring consistent and standardized practices across forensic laboratories and provide an empirical basis for drafting standards for MS comparison and acceptance criteria. 

These projects support the goals of NIJ’s Forensic Science Strategic Research Plan, 2022-2026

Date Published: November 2, 2023