12 Investigates: Toxicologists at VCU concoct "maggot milkshakes"

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The offspring of flies may actually be doing the work of detectives, and not even know it.

10 years ago, NBC12 showed you VCU forensic toxicologists mixing maggots that had been feeding on pureed pork - laced with a drug.

They called it a maggot milkshake. They were trying to find out if you could figure out what kinds of drugs a person had in their system when they died... from the bugs that were feeding on the decomposing body.

"It's a legitimate question to ask, because oftentimes remains are found that are predominantly skeletonized," said VCU professor and forensic toxicologist Michelle Peace. She is now training the next generation of forensic scientists, all while making sense of her research on bugs and drugs.

"It's the old adage that are moms tells us, you are what you eat," said Peace.

Bodies left outside in the elements deteriorate quickly. And it's true - the bugs that soon take over could help detectives discover what the victim was doing just before death. What drugs were in the system, what poisons?

"If the larvae are consuming tissues, and those tissues on the body contain a drug, well then that drug will then be in a maggot," said Peace.

A lot's changed on campus in 10 years. Forensic science is now a department at VCU with around 450 graduate and undergraduate students in the program. The research here has grown. Matthew Goldstein is a first year grad student trying to pull DNA out of trace amounts of evidence like saliva, or the tiniest of blood spatters.

"It's not at all what you see on TV, whenever my friends, I tell someone I'm in forensic science they go 'oh, CSI?' I'm like 'ahhh, short answer yes, long answer, not at all,'" said Goldstein.

Forensic scientists are already using insects to help figure out time of death in dead bodies - someday bugs, such as maggots, may be able to say so much more.

Peace is working to publish the research on maggot milkshakes next year.

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