Scientist haunted by misuse of drugs he invented

Jan 05, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
This handout photo provided by Purdue University shows David Nichols in a lab at the university in West Lafayette, Ind., Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Nichols studies the way psychedelic drugs act in the brains of rats. But he's haunted by how his work is being hijacked by humans selling street drugs. (AP Photo/Purdue University, Mark Simons)

David Nichols studies the way psychedelic drugs act in the brains of rats. But he's haunted by how humans hijack his work to make street drugs, sometimes causing overdose deaths.

Nichols makes chemicals roughly similar to ecstasy and LSD that are supposed to help explain how parts of the . Then he publishes the results for other scientists, hoping his work one day leads to treatments for depression or Parkinson's disease.

But Nichols' findings have not stayed in purely scientific circles. They've also been exploited by black market labs to make cheap and marginally legal recreational drugs.

"You try to work for something good, and it's subverted in a way," Nichols said. "I try not to think about it."

Now the 66-year-old chairman of the Purdue University pharmacology department is speaking out in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals to describe an ethical struggle seldom discussed by brain researchers.

"You can't control what people do with what you publish, but yeah, I felt it personally," he said in a phone interview, explaining that his struggles are probably somewhat similar to those faced by the inventor of the machine gun, although not as severe. The journal Nature published his essay online Wednesday.

"What if a substance that seems innocuous is marketed and becomes wildly popular on the dance scene, but then millions of users develop an unusual type of that proves irreversible and difficult to treat, or even life-threatening or fatal?" Nichols wrote. "That would be a disaster of immense proportions. This question, which was never part of my research focus, now haunts me."

Nichols has studied psychedelic drugs for more than 40 years, concentrating on serotonin. That's a basic chemical "that goes to every part of the brain. It's involved in appetite, sleep, sex, aggression, you name it," Nichols said in the interview with The Associated Press. "It really plays a key role in , the difference between being awake and being asleep."

Nichols estimates that at least five of his compounds - out of hundreds - have been turned into street drugs.

His drug work used to be a joking matter. People would ask him if he needed human test subjects, and he would respond: "No, it's just rat stuff."

"I never thought of these getting out of the lab," he told the AP. Sure, the field includes research into LSD and other hallucinogens, but Nichols never imagined his work escaping the lab and causing death. The worst would be maybe someone getting high on stuff they shouldn't, he figured.

"Every time we make a molecule now, I do think, 'Is this the one that's going to be a problem?' I never used to think that before," Nichols said.

One chemical was so potent that "I just stopped and said, 'We're not going to study this one. This stuff would hit the market big-time,'" he said.

That wasn't the case almost 20 years ago, when he developed something similar to ecstasy - but not nearly as potent. Back then it was a little-known street drug. He published his study, found little interest from pharmaceutical companies in his chemical, called MTA, and moved on.

But somebody in the illicit world of drug abuse read his research and synthesized that drug into tablets for street use. It was eerily called "flatliners." But it really didn't provide much of a high. "Flatline implies that you're brain dead," Nichols said. "Why would anyone take it?"

People did. They took too much. Their brains were flooded with serotonin, and they died. The first time Nichols was told about it, only two people had died.

"I sat in my office and thought. 'Wow, if you shoot somebody with a gun, you know you killed them, but if technology escapes and someone dies," Nichols said, his voice trailing off. "You're kind of disconnected from it."

At least five or six people died from that first drug. A second drug, a hallucinogenic called bromo-dragonfly, has killed two others. It could have been worse because it was chemically similar to a potent toxin that causes liver cancer, Nichols said.

A story last year in the Wall Street Journal said Nichols' published research is a favorite for European chemists who make black market street drugs. That hit him hard, but didn't surprise him. In the past year or so, he's been getting inquiries about his research from investigators and forensic labs.

Johns Hopkins University behavioral biology professor Roland Griffiths struggles with the same ethical questions when he studies the chemicals behind hallucinogenic mushrooms. But Griffiths believes the key to scientific progress is the free exchange of ideas, saying it's better than no information.

University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan said there are times when you can share too much scientific information - with nuclear weapons, biological weapons and the like - despite the desire for open research. And this may be one of those cases given the large out there, he said.

Caplan said Nichols' essay "should lead to more careful thinking about the unintended consequences of scientific advances."

Explore further: Researchers take 'first baby step' toward anti-aging drug

More information: Nature: www.nature.com/nature

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User comments : 32

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gmurphy
4.8 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2011
Imagine if reserachers put their mind to creating an effective recreational compound which was also safe / side-effect free.
danlgarmstrong
5 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2011
This is why Muslims should be banned from any access to this technology, just like Nukes...

You paint a billion people with a pretty broad brush. The middle east kept the light of Greek and Roman civilization going for centuries while the west sank into barbarism. Moorish Spain held the worlds greatest (at the time) culture, a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims alike lived side by side with toleration and respect. Until the Christians slaughtered, forcibly converted, or otherwise drove both other religions out of the country. Sounds like you would have liked riding with 'El Cid'. Racist.
Husky
5 / 5 (2) Jan 05, 2011
Would be hard to beat Alexander Shulgin
danlgarmstrong
Jan 05, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
jamesrm
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
"You can't control what people do with what you publish,..." yet, just keep researching :)
Skepticus
2.6 / 5 (9) Jan 05, 2011
This is why Muslims should be banned from any access to this technology, just like Nukes...

You paint a billion people with a pretty broad brush. The middle east kept the light of Greek and Roman civilization going for centuries ...


That may hed true as you said, centuries ago. Now, the religion of peace's followers are hell bent on the path to make infidel like me to enjoy their kind of peace..,as in "rot in peace". Muslims only have themselves to blame. When was the last time masses and masses of muslims demonstrate to condemn terrorists, or radical clerics? A religion is unworthy of if the "words of God" are written to motivate and justify murder.

zslewis91
5 / 5 (7) Jan 05, 2011
from hallucinogens to muslims... can someone say -"attention deficit disorder"-
Mr_Man
5 / 5 (2) Jan 05, 2011
from hallucinogens to muslims... can someone say -"attention deficit disorder"-


That is what the "report abuse" button is for. Don't be afraid to use it.
Eikka
5 / 5 (3) Jan 05, 2011
Racist.


An ideology or a set of beliefs isn't a race.

The entire problem is, how can you tolerate an ideology that wants to replace yours, by force if necessary?
Marcus_Wilson
3.2 / 5 (9) Jan 05, 2011
This is an example of how we should STRONGLY consider legalizing drugs and ending the war on drugs. This is not, NOT an example of how scientists need to be careful when considering scientific advances! Maybe they do need to consider them, but when in the context of new drugs I don't think fear and anxiety would need to be a factor if drugs were legal. Come on already.... it's 2011
plasticpower
2.6 / 5 (7) Jan 06, 2011
I doubt legalizing drugs is a good idea. We already have enough drunk drivers to where it's the #1 cause of deaths on the road. Imagine if we couldn't detect that someone is high, when they in fact are and operating a motor vehicle. How do we punish them then to prevent irresponsible individuals from killing people?
thewhitebear
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
great comment thread. raises the question: If the results of scientific research can be reasonably assumed to cause harm should we as a culture allow that research to proceed? Should science have a limitless domain of inquiry? And if there are to be limits, how are they chosen? If a science experiment can be shown to risk the life of 10 people in order to save 11, should it be allowed to go forward?
Mayday
5 / 5 (6) Jan 06, 2011
Maybe he should be thankful that he didn't invent the automobile.
gwrede
5 / 5 (4) Jan 06, 2011
I don't see what he's whining about. The guy that invented Aspirin has truckloads of dead people on his conscience, each year!
rubberman
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 06, 2011
The only person responsible for a death due to a recreational drug is the guy who took the drug. Sadly, we live in a society that tries very hard to protect the stupid from themselves....why bother? Granted, if I were a scientist doing work in this field, and publishing my findings, I would have to be stupid to think that when I find something that "works" that it won't wind up on the street at some point.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (3) Jan 06, 2011
@ danlgarmstrong
Sounds like you would have liked riding with 'El Cid'. Racist.


Not that I disagree with your sentiment, but "Muslim" is not a race.
DoubleD
3 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
I doubt legalizing drugs is a good idea. We already have enough drunk drivers to where it's the #1 cause of deaths on the road. Imagine if we couldn't detect that someone is high, when they in fact are and operating a motor vehicle. How do we punish them then to prevent irresponsible individuals from killing people?


I have been saying for years that the grass lobby should fund development of the equivalent of a breathalyser for pot if they actually want to achieve legalization. It will never happen before that.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
Racist.
An ideology or a set of beliefs isn't a race.
Agreed.
The entire problem is, how can you tolerate an ideology that wants to replace yours, by force if necessary?
By being better than they are? Tell us, how exactly does someone replace your culture if you're unwilling to give it up?
I have been saying for years that the grass lobby should fund development of the equivalent of a breathalyser for pot if they actually want to achieve legalization. It will never happen before that.
Yes, but can you imagine the misuse and abuse that would occur initially?
Damon_Hastings
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
Imagine if reserachers put their mind to creating an effective recreational compound which was also safe / side-effect free.

Sure, and then kiss everything else in your life goodbye. See "wireheading". When pleasure drugs are perfected to a certain level, it won't really matter any more whether they're physically addictive/damaging.
Skepticus
Jan 06, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
@ Skepticus

It does work - I've reported these guys before in other threads and noted the disappearance of the offending post, including one from yesterday that got removed same day. It probably happens so much though that physorg staff just do it whenever they get around to it.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
I have to wonder if it occurred to these researchers that the reason their creations are a hit on the black market is that it is illegal to use ANY hallucinogenic.If all drugs were legal,it would kill the black market,and free up billions for treating addicts who want to quit,and bring in huge tax revenues.Before you get excited and say I am crazy,check out what L.E.A.P. has to say on the subject ( google it,they suddenly don't like posting of links on this site)
If thousands of cops and judges think legalization makes sense,maybe it should be considered.The war on drugs has a 95 year history of failure.Are we going to keep it going for another 95 years?
dtxx
5 / 5 (3) Jan 06, 2011
Legalizing these substances will only reduce harm. You wouldn't even have a market for the crappy or dangerous ones if the better alternatives were freely available. And they wouldn't be coming out of some underground lab to be sold through unscrupulous criminals.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
Legalizing these substances will only reduce harm. You wouldn't even have a market for the crappy or dangerous ones if the better alternatives were freely available. And they wouldn't be coming out of some underground lab to be sold through unscrupulous criminals.

My thoughts exactly! People using heroin,for example,have died because suppliers have been known to increase the potency of their product without informing users-that would end with legalization and standardization of drug dosages.
There is (or was) a trial study in the UK that provides heroin addicts with the drug,thereby allowing them to maintain employment,pay taxes,and support their family,and if memory serves,it was quite successful. According to LEAP,the percentage of people regularly using drugs is pretty stable over time,and averages about 10% of the population.These people could benefit the most from government subsidized drug treatment centres should they chose to quit.
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (3) Jan 06, 2011
Totally agreed with Newbeak, dtxx, et al. Legalization is the only solution.

As for all those who whine about there being no "breathalyzer" for pot, hallucinogenics, etc., just consider what people used to do before breathalyzers were deployed. The old "close your eyes, splay out your arms, now touch your nose with the index finger of your right hand..." routine.

Point being, if you're high and as a result _impaired_ while driving, then it should be easy to construct a behavioral/motor coordination test to detect the _impairment_, regardless of the modality that caused it.

For instance, it's illegal to drive while sleep-deprived. Shall we outlaw alarm clocks, or late-night TV shows?
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
Totally agreed with Newbeak, dtxx, et al. Legalization is the only solution.

As for all those who whine about there being no "breathalyzer" for pot, hallucinogenics, etc., just consider what people used to do before breathalyzers were deployed. The old "close your eyes, splay out your arms, now touch your nose with the index finger of your right hand..." routine.

Point being, if you're high and as a result _impaired_ while driving, then it should be easy to construct a behavioral/motor coordination test to detect the _impairment_, regardless of the modality that caused it.

For instance, it's illegal to drive while sleep-deprived. Shall we outlaw alarm clocks, or late-night TV shows?

Good points.Maybe the DUI laws could be modified to require a blood sample if drug intoxication is suspected.
Legalization of drugs would not lead to an increase in drug DUIs.The same people that take illegal drugs now and drive would continue to do so after legalization.
frajo
Jan 07, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Justsayin
not rated yet Jan 08, 2011
Dave should concentrate on all the mind bogglingly fun times and intense experiences he has given all the people of the world.
dtxx
not rated yet Jan 08, 2011
Dave should concentrate on all the mind bogglingly fun times and intense experiences he has given all the people of the world.


That's a good point. I would also add that thousands and thousand of people the world over have had positive transformative experiences, even life changing ones. I'm not suggesting at all he shouldn't be concerned for those who might die, but he might find some solace rejoicing in the fact that he has also helped people.
ekim
5 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2011
While I believe some form of legalization is required, I really don't think it will happen. There are too many jobs to be lost by not having a war on drugs. Police and prisons are a major part of the economy now, and incarceration of the 10% who use drugs keeps it going. It isn't in the interests of either the dealers or the prison industry to legalize. There is too much profit to be made in this war, for both sides. The victims of this conflict will always be the users and the taxpayers who are caught in the middle.
Who lives, who died, who worship what? Who cares!Money! Just make money! That's the golden path to own everything and everyone in the end!
ormondotvos
5 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2011
Any rational economic analysis points clearly to legalization, standardization and regulation.

Unfortunately, the citizens are being trained to be non-rational, even anti-rational.

Corporate legislative control works better that way, "better" being defined as the rich get richer, as the poor drop like flies.
Newbeak
not rated yet Jan 10, 2011
Any rational economic analysis points clearly to legalization, standardization and regulation.

Unfortunately, the citizens are being trained to be non-rational, even anti-rational.

Corporate legislative control works better that way, "better" being defined as the rich get richer, as the poor drop like flies.

I don't think people are being trained to be irrational.More likely,that is the natural human condition-magical thinking,belief in the supernatural,etc.What is needed are courses in critical thinking in schools.
Newbeak
not rated yet Jan 10, 2011
While I believe some form of legalization is required, I really don't think it will happen. There are too many jobs to be lost by not having a war on drugs. Police and prisons are a major part of the economy now, and incarceration of the 10% who use drugs keeps it going. It isn't in the interests of either the dealers or the prison industry to legalize. There is too much profit to be made in this war, for both sides. The victims of this conflict will always be the users and the taxpayers who are caught in the middle.
Who lives, who died, who worship what? Who cares!Money! Just make money! That's the golden path to own everything and everyone in the end!


Yes,I have always believed this to be true.Like any bureaucracy,the anti-drug police,justice,and penal system,once established,will,like metastasizing cancer,fight tooth and nail for it's own survival and expansion.
The system is,as ormondotvos points out, composed of irrational citizenry,including those at the top.
frajo
not rated yet Jan 13, 2011
Any rational economic analysis points clearly to legalization, standardization and regulation.

Unfortunately, the citizens are being trained to be non-rational, even anti-rational.

Corporate legislative control works better that way, "better" being defined as the rich get richer, as the poor drop like flies.
I don't think people are being trained to be irrational.
Unfortunately, they are. The whole apparatus of advertisement is just a gigantic machinery to help people to make irrational decisions.
More likely,that is the natural human condition-magical thinking,belief in the supernatural,etc.
True. Human ratio is a very thin skin above an abyss of evolutionary instincts.
What is needed are courses in critical thinking in schools.
Yes. Unfortunately, lots of schools are objects of the "free market" ruled by whoever has the most money.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Jan 13, 2011
More likely,that is the natural human condition-magical thinking,belief in the supernatural,etc.

True. Human ratio is a very thin skin above an abyss of evolutionary instincts.
Actually supernatural thinking appears to merely be an extension of patterning, which more than just the human animal does.

There was a recent experiment done with birds to see what they do in regards to patterning. It was found that pigeons will follow the same sort of superstitious activity that a baseball batter will do. The whole spin three times before you press a button (swing a bat) type garbage to attempt to "ensure" positive results because that practice worked once before.

It's rather intriguing.

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