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One hundred fifteen Americans die every day from opioid overdose. These overdose fatalities have been augmented by the increased availability of potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and its derivatives. The death rate of synthetic opioids, other than methadone, increased by 72.2% from 2014 to 2015, and doubled from 2015 to 2016, situating the USA in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. The analytical identification of these opioids in postmortem samples and the correct toxicological data interpretation is critical to identify and implement preventive strategies. This article reviews the current knowledge of postmortem toxicology of synthetic opioids and the chemical and pharmacological factors that may affect drug concentrations in the different postmortem matrices and therefore, their interpretation. These factors include key chemical properties, essential pharmacokinetics parameters (metabolism), postmortem redistribution and stability data in postmortem samples. Range and ratios of concentrations reported in traditional and non-traditional postmortem specimens, blood, urine, vitreous humor, liver and brain, are summarized in tables. The review is focused on fentanyl and derivatives (e.g., acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, 4-methoxybutyrylfentanyl, 4-fluorobutyrylfentanyl, ocfentanil) and non-traditional opioid agonists (e.g., AH-7921, MT-45, U-47700). All of these data are critically compared to postmortem data, and chemical and pharmacological properties of natural opioids (morphine), semi-synthetic (oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone), and syntheticopioids (methadoneandbuprenorphine). The interpretation of drug intoxication in death investigation is based on the available published literature. This review serves to facilitate the evaluation of cases where synthetic opioids may be implicated in a fatality through the critical review of peer reviewed published case reports and research articles.


This article was originally published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, available at DOI: 10.3389/fphar.2018.01210.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License (CC BY).



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