Adulteration of allegedly “natural herbal medicines” with undeclared synthetic drugs is a common and dangerous phenomenon of alternative medicine.
The purpose of the study was to develop a procedure for detection of most common synthetic adulterants in herbal remedies, using high-pressure liquid chromatography-electrospray tandem mass spectrometry (LC–ESI–MS–MS). Eighty drugs belonging to various pharmacological classes were included in the study. For most drugs two transitions were monitored, using protonated or deprotonated molecules as precursor ions. The drugs were isolated from herbal remedies using simple methanol extraction. Chromatographic separation was done in gradient of acetonitrile—10 mM ammonium formate buffer (pH 3.0). Drugs tested were grouped in suites, comprising analgesic drugs, antibiotics, antidiabetic drugs, antiepileptic drugs, aphrodisiacs, hormones and anabolic drugs, psychotropic drugs, and weight reducing compounds. These suites were used according to the declared benefits of examined preparations. Limits of detection ranged from 5 pg to 1 ng per injected sample. Drug-free herbal remedy spiked with eight various pharmaceuticals occurring in adulterated herbal preparations was used for internal proficiency testing. The recoveries of spiked drugs ranged from 63 to 100%. The procedure was applied in everyday casework. Several undeclared drugs were identified in “herbal” remedies, like e.g. sildenafil, tadalafil, testosterone, or glibenclamide. Pharmacological properties of detected drugs always corresponded with the claims of the “natural” remedies. The method presents a valuable extension of standard GC–MS screening used for this purpose.