When University of Pittsburgh medical researcher Robert J. Ferrante ordered cyanide in April, he exploited some loopholes in the university and chemical company's policies that allowed him to obtain a deadly chemical quicker than normal.
Mr. Ferrante was arrested last month in the homicide of his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, who died of cyanide poisoning.
Cyanide, which can kill a human in a few minutes, is difficult for the average person to get hold of. But within the scientific community, cyanide is relatively easy to obtain.
Representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, National Security Administration, Bureau of Land Management, Federal Trade Commission and local Occupational Safety and Health Administration office said they did not regulate the sale of cyanide in the medical research setting and did not know who, if anyone, did.
Most rules regarding its sale are set by the chemical companies that sell cyanide or by the institutions that researchers work with, according to those who work with the substance. And the Ferrante case shows that those safeguards sometimes have loopholes.
"They always say, compared with other poisons, it's not all that difficult [to buy]," said Brian Logue, a professor in South Dakota State University's chemistry and biochemistry department who has studied cyanide extensively. "If you do work in a university lab ... you can get it pretty darn easily."
The process at Pitt
On April 15, Mr. Ferrante, 64, asked a lab colleague to buy 250 grams of potassium cyanide and have it shipped overnight, according to the arrest affidavit. Two days later, his wife, who was the head of women's neurology at UPMC, collapsed in the couple's Oakland home and was rushed to UPMC Presbyterian. She died on April 20.
Of 145 chemical purchases made by Mr. Ferrante's lab at the Pitt medical school and reviewed by city homicide detectives, the cyanide purchase was the only one that did not directly relate to a project or grant associated with his work.
University representatives refused to go into detail about Mr. Ferrante's purchase or about the school's approval process for chemical purchases, citing "the law enforcement preference."
They did provide links to copies of the school's Chemical Hygiene Plan, which outlines rules for the procurement of chemicals and their use, and for the use of the university credit card that investigators said Mr. Ferrante used for the expedited purchase.
The 20-page Chemical Hygiene Plan includes one paragraph about the purchase of chemicals that states, "All chemicals will be procured through the University Purchasing Department in the smallest quantity consistent with the intended use."
"Those processes were not followed in this case," Pitt spokesman John Fedele said. Further questions were referred to associate vice chancellor for communications Ken Service, who would not comment further.
The university's Panther Buy or PRISM purchasing systems allow university staff to place orders for materials online. Depending on the cost of the items they are requesting and their status within their department, a departmental purchasing approver may have to sign off on the request and authorize the release of money.
Orders made through the university's purchasing system take an average of 3.8 days to turn around, according to the university's purchasing website.
Mr. Ferrante bypassed that system, investigators said, by using a P-Card, or a university credit card rarely used for lab expenses. That allowed him to receive the cyanide the next day.
A P-Card, according to the school's website, is "an institutional purchasing credit card designed to simplify and decentralize the process of procuring goods for your department."
An unnamed lab colleague told detectives that the P-Card "is a last choice for purchases and this was the first time Ferrante had used it," according to the affidavit.
University policy prohibits the P-Card from being used for hazardous or radioactive materials, controlled substances or testing laboratories.
Pitt officials would not comment on who, if anyone, reviews purchases made using a P-Card or when that would occur.
Procedure at the chemical company
Most chemical companies have their own screening processes to weed out people who are trying to obtain materials for illegal means, but the Ferrante case shows there are some loopholes.
According to an arrest affidavit, the cyanide Mr. Ferrante requested came from Sigma-Aldrich, headquartered in St. Louis and one of the largest chemical suppliers in the medical research community.
Jen McMahon, a spokeswoman for Sigma-Aldrich, said the company has not received any search warrants or subpoenas connected to the case, but "we have been contacted by and are cooperating with investigators."
She said the company reviews all orders from new customers to ensure the legitimacy of the group they are affiliated with and to check the intended use for the chemicals.
"We also monitor orders from established accounts and will contact our customers to further discuss their usage of our products as necessary. In some cases, we will request copies of laboratory method documents or written statements describing the actual use of the material."
It is not clear whether Mr. Ferrante's purchase was flagged in the system. Citing the ongoing investigation, Ms. McMahon declined to go into further detail about Mr. Ferrante's purchase or about what sorts of scenarios might trigger the company to ask for more information.
Of the case involving Mr. Ferrante and his wife, Ms. McMahon said: "This is very unfortunate. The university has been an excellent customer of ours for years and has typically been very careful in the handling of our products. We screen at the university level. Who the university allows within their research labs to purchase the product is up to their discretion."
Mr. Logue said he thought cyanide seems to be treated similarly to other chemicals used in research.
"There are plenty of other chemicals that we work with that are dangerous or could be used as poisons that don't get the publicity of cyanide since that's more of a well-known poison," he said. "It's not out of the ordinary for us to be working with things that are a little bit dangerous. There are people who work with this stuff all the time."
Liz Navratil: email@example.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM