Chemist shocked to find his work being used to make 'legal highs'


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A university chemist who develops new drugs for serious illnesses has described his horror at discovering that some of his published findings have been misused to create "legal highs" which killed people. David Nichols, who works on psychedelic compounds at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said he was shocked to find out that so-called "underground" chemists were scrutinising his research papers in order to make recreational drugs for sale on the black market. Some of these illicit but legal drugs have been implicated in the deaths of young people, Dr Nichols said.

He warned that the untested nature of the experimental compounds he works with could result in many more deaths or serious injuries if any of these substances suddenly became popular. "The issue that concerns me is safety. These drugs are being sold as legal highs but being legal does not necessarily mean safe. The potential is there for a really major disaster," Dr Nichols said. "It has become disturbingly clear to me that some of my scientific contributions may not be aiding people's wellbeing at all. In fact, they could be causing real harm."

He first became aware that underground chemists were following his research more than a decade ago, when he was working on 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as MDMA or ecstasy, as a potential drug for use in psychotherapy. The research led to work on a closely related drug, called MTA, which was tested on laboratory rats.

"Without my knowledge, MTA was synthesised by others and made into tablets called 'flatliners'. Some people who took them died," Dr Nichols says in an article published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

"My laboratory had shown that rats perceived the effects of MTA as being like those of ecstasy. It seemed that was the sole motivation for its illicit production and distribution. I was stunned by this revelation, and it left me with a hollow and depressed feeling for some time. By 2002, six deaths had been associated with the use of MTA," Dr Nichols said.

"It did not help that I knew some of these fatalities were associated with the use of multiple drugs, or had involved very large doses of MTA. I had published information that ultimately led to human death."

Dr Nichols said it would be very difficult to withhold scientific information from a published research paper, because such details are important to the scientific process. "Although some of my results have been, abused, one cannot know where research ultimately will lead," he said.

It may be not immediately obvious that some new drugs are toxic and their harmful effects may take many years to become apparent, in which time millions of people could be exposed to the risk, Dr Nichols said.