Time of death studies 'very promising'

Andrea Donaldson
Andrea Donaldson
Scientific detective work by University of Otago researcher Andrea Donaldson could pave the way for a revolutionary new and more accurate way of determining the time of death, during murder investigations.

Mrs Donaldson (35) will graduate from Otago University today with a biochemistry PhD focusing on identifying blood test biomarkers which could more precisely determine the time of death.

She will be among about 370 people who will graduate in person with a wide range of qualifications, including in consumer and applied sciences and physical education, in a 4pm ceremony at the Dunedin Town Hall. Since she was a child she has been interested in solving murderous crimes, and had read several forensic studies before leaving secondary school.

She has already completed an MSc at Otago, focusing on an innovative analysis of blood-spatter evidence, which attracted an inquiry from interested police investigators in the United States.

During her more recent PhD studies she had been striving to identify biomarkers in the bloodstream, such as proteins or metabolites, to help clarify when a person has died.

Metabolites include materials such as glucose which are produced during metabolic processes.

Determining the time of death was often the ''most sought-after piece of information'' and ''one of the most important things'' in a death investigation, she said.

Such knowledge was crucial, for example, in helping to include or exclude suspects, based on their whereabouts.

But current methods for estimating the time of death - including measuring body temperature, rigor mortis and insect activity - often left large windows of time and sometimes contradicted each other.

She is believed to be one of the first researchers to study the use of biochemical blood markers to determine the time of death and her early results have been ''very promising''.

She has identified 30 metabolites and 12 proteins in blood as potential biomarkers.

Mrs Donaldson, who is a qualified nurse, will soon undertake forensic mental health nursing in Hamilton, but hopes to gain funding to continue further biochemical research into determining the time of death.