In this study we describe an approach to enhance the sensitivity of an online comprehensive two-dimensional liquid chromatography (LC × LC) high-resolution mass spectrometry method for the separation and detection of trace levels of anabolic-steroid residues in complex urine matrices. Compared to one-dimensional liquid chromatography (1D-LC), LC × LC methods offer higher separation power, thanks to the combined effect of two different selectivities and a higher peak capacity. However, when using state-of-the-art LC × LC instrumentation, the price paid for the increase in separation power is a decrease in sensitivity and detectability of trace-level analytes. This can be ascribed to the sample dilution that takes place during each of the two chromatographic steps. The way in which fractions are collected and transferred from the first to the second column is also of paramount importance, especially the volume and the solvent composition of the fractions injected in the second column. To overcome the detection limitation, we present an active-modulation strategy, based on concentrating the fractions of the first-dimension effluent using a modulation interface that employs trap columns. We obtained a signal enhancement for anabolic-steroid compounds in a bovine-urine sample by a factor of 2.4–7.6 and an increase in the signal-to-noise ratio up to a factor of 7 in comparison with a standard loop-based modulation interface. In addition, thanks to the increased sensitivity of our method, a substantially larger number of peaks were detected (76 vs. 36). Moreover, we could reduce the solvent consumption by a factor of three (160 mL vs. 500 mL per run).
- Active modulation
- Anabolic steroids
- Comprehensive two-dimensional liquid chromatography
- Residue analysis
- Signal enhancement