FLN-TWG: LC-MS-Based Forensic Toxicology Screening

FLN-TWG: LC-MS-Based Forensic Toxicology Screening

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Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG)

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in partnership with the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCOE) at RTI International, formed the Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG). The FLN-TWG supports NIJ’s mission to improve knowledge and understanding of the forensic technology needs of federal, state, local, and tribal forensic practitioners and crime laboratories.

Implementation Strategies: LC-MS-Based Forensic Toxicology Screening


February 2021


This paper provides guidance for the implementation and utilization of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS)–based toxicological screening as a more advanced alternative to traditional immunoassay. LC-MS gives a multi-targeted, highly selective and sensitive screening capability compared with the screening of limited drug classes or target analytes offered by traditional immunoassay. Various LC-MS approaches have been used as an alternative, including LC-MS/MS (liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry), LC-TOF-MS (liquid chromatography-time of flight mass spectrometry), and LC-QTOF-MS (liquid chromatography-quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometry).

These techniques are amenable to toxicological screening using routine postmortem or antemortem specimens. MS-based screening has received significant attention because of the proliferation of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and the need for increased and rapidly adaptable testing scope and sensitivity. These benefits are an important consideration for NPS (e.g., novel synthetic opioids, benzodiazepines, cathinones, and cannabinoids), the use of which is commonly transient and dominated by geographical trends, requiring flexibility and agility with respect to analytical testing.

Although the most significant challenge associated with LC-MS–based screening is cost associated with obtaining, validating, and implementing this technology, costs must be weighed against the potential opportunity costs, such as the considerable public safety and criminal justice consequences associated with failures to identify a substance or mis-identifications.

Funding for this Forensic Technology Center of Excellence report was provided by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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