David Nichols on the impact of his scientific work with recreational drug users

Professor David E. Nichols is a legend for scientists who are interested in the behavioral pharmacology of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, aka, 'Ecstasy'). If you look carefully at many of the earlier papers (and some not-so-early) you will see that people obtained their research supply of this drug from him. As well as much of their background knowledge from publications he has co-authored. He has also worked on a number of other compounds which manipulate dopaminergic and/or serotonergic neurotransmission, some of which are of great interest to those in the recreational user community who seek (ever and anon) new highs, particularly ones that might be similar to their favorite illicit drugs but that may not currently be controlled. Those who are interested in making money supplying the recreational consumer population are particularly interested in the latter, of course.

Professor Nichols has published a recent viewpoint in Nature in which he muses on the uses to which some of his work has been put:

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal. It described a "laboratory-adept European entrepreneur" and his chief chemist, who were mining the scientific literature to find ideas for new designer drugs — dubbed legal highs. I was particularly disturbed to see my name in the article, and that I had "been especially valuable" to their cause. I subsequently received e-mails saying I should stop my research, and that I was an embarrassment to my university.

I have never considered my research to be dangerous, and in fact hoped one day to develop medicines to help people.

As with most scientists, I have little doubt. And ultimately, I agree with his observation that

There really is no way to change the way we publish things, although in one case we did decide not to study or publish on a molecule we knew to be very toxic. I guess you could call that self-censure. Although some of my results have been, shall we say, abused, one cannot know where research ultimately will lead. I strive to find positive things, and when my research is used for negative ends it upsets me.

It is unfortunate that Professor Nichols has been put in this position. Undoubtedly John Huffman of JWH-018 fame (one of the more popular synthetic full-agonist cannabinoids sprayed on herbal incense products) feels much the same about his own work. But I suppose this is the risk that is run with many lines of basic and pre-clinical work. Not just recreational drug use but even therapeutic use- after all off-label prescribing has to start somewhere. And individual health (or do I mean "health") practices such as high-dosing on blueberries or cranberries, various so-called "nutritional supplements", avoiding certain foods, exercise regimes, diets, etc may be based on no more than a single scientific paper, right?

So we should all feel some bit of Professor Nichols' pain, even if our own work hasn't been mis-used or over-interpreted...yet.

UPDATE: Thoughts from David Kroll over at the cenblog home of Terra Sigillata.

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