The opioid analgesic fentanyl and its analogues pose a major health concern due to its high potency and the increasing number of overdose deaths worldwide. The analogues of fentanyl may differ in potency, toxicity, and legal status, and it is therefore important to develop analytical methods for their correct identification. This can be challenging since many fentanyl analogues are structural isomers. Two fentanyl isomers that have been in the spotlight lately due to difficulties regarding separation and identification are cyclopropylfentanyl and crotonylfentanyl, which have been reported to display nearly identical fragmentation patterns and chromatographic behavior.
Chromatographic separation of cyclopropylfentanyl and crotonylfentanyl by ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography was investigated using 3 different stationary phases (high strength silica T3, ethylsiloxane/silica hybrid C18, and Kinetex biphenyl) using gradient elution with a mobile phase consisting of 10 mM ammonium formate pH 3.1 and MeOH. Detection was performed by tandem mass spectrometry. In addition, the major metabolites of the 2 compounds formed on incubation with human liver microsomes were identified by ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography-quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry analysis.
Baseline separation of cyclopropylfentanyl and crotonylfentanyl was achieved on the ethylsiloxane/silica hybrid C18 column with retention times of 6.79 and 7.35 minutes, respectively. The major metabolites of the 2 analogues formed by human liver microsomes differed, with the main biotransformation being N-dealkylation and carboxylation for cyclopropylfentanyl and crotonylfentanyl, respectively. We demonstrated the usefulness of the 2 approaches by unambiguously identifying cyclopropylfentanyl, as well as its metabolites, in 2 authentic postmortem blood samples.
In this study, we successfully demonstrated that cyclopropylfentanyl and crotonylfentanyl can be distinguished by methods commonly available in forensic laboratories.