Analytical considerations for postmortem metabolomics using GC-high-resolution MS


Metabolomics studies that aim to qualitatively and quantitatively characterize the entirety of small endogenous biomolecules in an organism are widely conducted in the clinical setting. They also become more and more popular in the field of forensics (toxicology), e.g., to assist in postmortem investigations by objective postmortem interval estimation. However, other issues in postmortem toxicology, such as the phenomenon of (time-dependent) postmortem redistribution, have not yet been tackled by metabolomics studies. Hence, the aim of the current study was to develop an (un)targeted gas chromatography-high-resolution mass spectrometry–based method for endogenous metabolites as a tool for large-scale (un)targeted human postmortem metabolomics investigations (e.g., to objectively assess PMR) with thorough analytical evaluation of this method to ensure fitness-to-purpose in terms of reliability and robustness. This was achieved by using a targeted metabolite subset (n = 56) and a targeted processing workflow. Evaluation experiments have shown that using an artificial matrix (revised simulated body fluid (rSBF) + 5% bovine serum albumin (BSA)) for calibration purposes, all parameters lay within the scope of the method (sensitivity, selectivity, calibration model, accuracy, precision, processed sample stability, and extraction efficiency). When applying this method to large-scale studies, samples should be run in randomized order if analysis time is expected to exceed 18–24 h and potential biomarkers that are found with this method should be verified by a specialized, targeted method (e.g., by using standard addition in authentic matrix for quantification purposes). Overall, the current method can be successfully used for conduction of time-dependent postmortem metabolomics investigations.

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The authors express their gratitude to Emma Louise Kessler, MD, for her generous legacy that she donated to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, for research purposes. The authors would like to thank the scientists from the Department of Forensic Pharmacology and Toxicology, Zurich Institute of Forensic Medicine, for helpful discussions.

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Correspondence to Andrea E. Steuer.

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The study was performed in full conformance with Swiss ethical laws, particularly those covering the use of human material in research. A waiver of the Cantonal Ethics Board of the Canton of Zurich was obtained (BASEC-Nr. Req-2017-00946) which states that small quantities of anonymized biological material obtained during investigations of the public prosecutor (e.g., during autopsies) can be used for research purposes without informed consent of the legally authorized representatives.

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Brockbals, L., Kraemer, T. & Steuer, A.E. Analytical considerations for postmortem metabolomics using GC-high-resolution MS. Anal Bioanal Chem 412, 6241–6255 (2020).

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  • Postmortem metabolomics
  • GC-MS
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Method evaluation
  • High resolution