Forensic Science Investigates New Sleep Aid of Toxicological Interest

Sleep Aids

The Department of Forensic Science developed a test to identify a new sleep aid in criminal and death investigations.

The Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University recently published research that could help identify a new legal sleep aid in criminal and death investigations.

As many as 50 million Americans experience trouble sleeping, and about 30 percent of the adult population in the U.S. report having insomnia. Suvorexant, known as BELSOMRA®, is a new class of sleep aid that targets the brain’s wakefulness center to speed up the onset of sleep and reduce awakening throughout the night. Although there are no published forensic toxicology case reports in the U.S. to date, many laboratories do not yet test for the drug in criminal cases or death investigations.

“Due to the prevalence of sleep disorders among the general population, sedative hypnotics have featured prominently in forensic toxicology casework, and suvorexant is unlikely to be an exception,” said Sarah Kerrigan, principal investigator and professor from the Department of Forensic Science. “Forensic toxicology laboratories are overwhelmed with the need to develop new analytical methods, as they try to keep pace with an ever increasing number of psychoactives and prescription drugs. Day-to-day operations, backlogs, and limited resources place significant strain on many publicly-funded laboratories.”

Suvorexant was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 and began distribution in the U.S. in February 2015. The Department of Forensic Science recently published two studies on suvorexant and additional work is still ongoing. The new studies describe how existing methodology can be used to identify suvorexant in biological samples. The first study, “Quantification of Suvorexant in Urine Using Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry,” by Mariah Carson and Kerrigan, was published in the Journal of Chromatography B. The second study, “Identification of Suvorexant in Urine Using Liquid Chromatography-Quadrupole/Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (LC-Q/TOF-MS),” by Sydney Sullinger, Kelsie Bryand, and Sarah Kerrigan, was published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology .

“Given the prevalence of sleep disorders and the extent to which other hypnotics and sedative drugs feature in death and criminal casework, suvorexant must be considered,” said Kerrigan. “Suvorexant is the first dual orexin receptor antagonist approved for use in the United States. It induces sleep in a novel way, and its effects with other central nervous system depressants are additive. Identification of the drug in biological samples is of paramount importance, especially in drug-facilitated sexual assault investigations or impaired driving.”

The Department of Forensic Science and the Institute of Forensic Research, Training, and Innovation at SHSU are committed to improving the standard and practice of forensic science in the United States and engaging in industrially relevant research. “This is just another example of how institutes of higher education can work in partnership with crime laboratories to meet current demands,” said Kerrigan, a former state crime laboratory director.


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