Fatal sarin poisoning in Syria 2013: forensic verification within an international laboratory network

Research paper by Harald John, Marcel J. van der Schans, Marianne Koller, Helma E. T. Spruit, Franz Worek, Horst Thiermann, Daan Noort

Indexed on: 01 Dec '17Published on: 21 Jul '17Published in: Forensic Toxicology


During the United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare agents in the Syrian Arab Republic in 2013, numerous tissues from a deceased female victim, who had displayed symptoms of cholinergic crisis, were collected. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) authorized two specialized laboratories in the Netherlands and Germany for forensic analysis of these samples. Diverse modern mass spectrometry (MS)-based procedures in combination with either liquid chromatography (LC) or gas chromatography (GC) separation were applied. A variety of biotransformation products of the nerve agent sarin was detected, including the hydrolysis product O-isopropyl methylphosphonic acid (IMPA) as well as covalent protein adducts with e.g., albumin and human butyrylcholinesterase (hBChE). IMPA was extracted after sample acidification by solid-phase extraction and directly analyzed by LC–tandem-MS with negative electrospray ionization (ESI). Protein adducts were found, either by fluoride-induced reactivation applying GC–MS techniques or by LC–MS-based detection after positive ESI for proteolyzed proteins yielding phosphonylated tyrosine residues or a specific phosphonylated hBChE-derived nonapeptide. These experimental results provided unambiguous evidence for a systemic intoxication and were the first proving the use of sarin in the ongoing bellicose conflict. This scenario underlines the requirement for qualified and specialized analytical laboratories to face repeated violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.