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The William Harvey Research Institute - Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Analysing the evidence: an interview with Professor Amrita Ahluwalia

In this interview, Professor Ahluwalia discusses her role in analysing some of the evidence collected during a police investigation into the use of a legal chemical to assist suicide.


Professor Amrita Ahluwalia

The BBC recently published an article, Poison seller tied to suicide forum tracked down by BBC, about their investigation into tracking down a man who is accused of selling a poison linked to at least 130 deaths in the UK. The BBC’s two-year investigation looked into the selling of the ‘poison,’ which the seller was marketing – and selling – on a forum where people openly discuss suicide.

The ‘poison’ is a chemical that can be legally sold in the UK, but only if companies are using it for legitimate purposes and if they carry out basic checks on what the substance will be used for. The chemical can be fatal when ingested. The BBC chose not to name the chemical and we’ve decided to do the same. Last year, a Canadian man, Kenneth Law, was arrested for selling the ‘poison’ to help people die by suicide. He now faces 14 murder charges.

Professor Amrita Ahluwalia, Dean for Research in Queen Mary’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and Lead for the Vascular Pharmacology Group in the William Harvey Research Institute, has been supporting UK investigations into the chemical, providing evidence that has linked the chemical to more than 130 deaths in the UK since 2019. Police and pathologists across the UK sent her blood and other samples from people who had died and whose death was thought to be linked to this chemical. She analysed the samples and of the 187 different cases assessed, she found that 71% showed high traces of the chemical, indicating that at least 133 people may have died as a result of ingesting it.

We spoke to Professor Ahluwalia about her role in the investigation.

How did you come to be involved in this investigation?

"In 2019 a forensic lab in the UK investigating a case contacted me. The lead scientist in that lab was a colleague and aware of my work on a family of substances, one of which was found at the scene of the case that he was investigating. He knew that I do research on this substance, and so he asked for my help as a favour.  My research has shown that at low levels, these chemicals provide important and safe positive effects on the body and more importantly, that they can be used to improve health – however, when the chemical is present in high levels in the body, it can be dangerous It’s the dose that makes the ‘poison’, not the chemical itself.

"The forensic scientist told me that a pot of one member of this family of chemicals was found at the scene. I was given a sample of blood that had been collected at the scene. Using highly specialised methods that I have in my lab, we measured several members of the family of chemicals.  It was clear to me from this analysis that there were high levels of one member of this family. I wrote a report, which was used by the forensic pathologist in reporting the findings and cause of death.

"It was this reporting that then led to other forensic labs and coroners getting in touch with me to ask if I could help them. Suddenly there was a potential explanation for several unexplained ‘presumed suicides. Over the next year or so, more and more forensic pathologists became aware of the work I had done. So now the favour to a colleague has led to an explosion of requests for my lab. Whilst in 2019 we helped with a total of 7 cases, in 2023 my lab assessed 43 different suspected cases."

What was the process you went through in your analysis?

"Of course, we are a research lab not a commercial forensic service, so I provided the first analysis as a favour to a colleague, only recouping some small costs.  But sadly, the demand has risen as more and more awareness of this approach to taking one’s life becomes known. I realise that to support the forensics community in their investigations the analysis is needed, and so we have now dedicated some technical lab time to support the many requests. I have done this to be helpful with the hope that eventually the need would diminish, but sadly to date this has not happened."

This is a very serious and sensitive investigation to be a part of. It must have been difficult knowing that the samples were from people who had died by suicide. How do you manage this with the responsibility of the task at hand – determining if the cause of death is likely to be a result of ingesting this deadly chemical?

"The whole issue is very sensitive and very troubling personally for me.  The so-called ‘poison’ is being misused and mis-sold by unscrupulous people to vulnerable individuals. This substance is not ‘evil’. What we know is that its effects in the body depend upon how much is present. In fact humans actually make this substance at a low level and research has shown that the amounts made in our bodies have positive effects.  However, it is a reactive chemical that at low concentrations interacts with certain substances in our bodies to do good things, but as the concentration goes up it starts reacting in a way in our bodies that can lead to the most serious of consequences described in the BBC news report. It is important to understand that almost every substance that is used as a medicine has a similar profile.

"Take glyceryl trinitrate as an example – also known as GTN. Many patients who have angina use a GTN puffer to treat their painful angina episodes for instantaneous relief. As a medication, it is safe and effective, but GTN was discovered by Alfred Nobel in his quest to develop an explosive. Indeed, GTN was later named dynamite!!

"Something should be done to ensure that this substance can’t be easily acquired for negative purposes. It has many good uses and some particularly essential to maintain health. Regulation is an option to ensure the chemical is used for what it is intended for, so that this so-called ‘poison’ is used only for good."

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need advice, visit Mind.



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