David Nichols of Purdue University is disturbed that his work is being hijacked by people selling street drugs.
David Nichols of Purdue University is disturbed that his work is being hijacked by people selling street drugs. Mark Simons/AP
David Nichols, a Purdue University pharmacologist, is a hero to many.
He has fans in the medical community, who salute his 40 years of work on the brain chemical serotonin that has lead to insights for treatment of Parkinson's and depression. He's also revered by a shifty community of underground chemists hoping to find the next big street drug among the psychedelic compounds he makes in his lab.
That second group makes Nichols very uncomfortable — so uncomfortable that he had to get some things off his chest. In an emotional essay published yesterday in Nature, Nichols issued a mea culpa of sorts, acknowledging that the well-intentioned work of chemists like him can cause real harm. What keeps him up at night is that the experimental medicines devised in his labs have been copied for street use, sometimes leading to deaths.
Back in the 1980s, Nichols was studying MDMA, or Ecstasy, before anyone had even heard of it. In the '90s, after his work on a similar compound, called MTA, was published, underground chemists made it on their own and distributed it. By 2002, six people had died after taking MTA. Nichols says he was "stunned by the revelation" that the compounds had fallen into nefarious hands.
For decades these illicit drugmakers have scoured the scientific journals for new compounds that would give people a buzz and still be legal. But Nichols tells Shots that recently he's received more calls from people outside medicine asking about his research than ever before. "In the last year, it's become much more obvious that more people have been looking at my work," Nichols said.
The advantage of these compounds – for potential dealers, anyway – is that they’re new and untested. That means they’ve never been shown to be unsafe, and have never been banned, and are different enough from outlawed drugs to still be legal.
The "legal highs" industry is very much alive and well today, as pharmacologist David Kroll has documented on his PLoS blog, Take as Directed. Among the most popular and widely available products on the market is a smokeable "herbal incense," called K2, advertised on several websites as aromatherapy and "perfect for meditation."
K2, and similar products, contain synthetic chemicals created by John Huffman at Clemson University. The chemist's work on how cannabinoids affect the brain and could be useful for medical research was discovered by enterprising underground chemists just as Nichols' work was.
As with the other new drugs discovered and manufactured by underground chemists, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has had to play some catch up with K2. Dozens of reports of kids winding up in the emergency room have trickled out. One Chicago emergency room doctor told the Chicago News Cooperative that K2 seems stronger, and more dangerous, than marijuana. "People who smoke marijuana don’t tend to wind up in the ER," the doctor said. "They just want to watch a video, eat some ice cream and go to sleep." Ilinois just banned K2.
Recently, the DEA announced it was outlawing the manufacture, possession and sale of five chemical compounds found in K2 products, while it studies them and decides whether they should be declared permanently controlled substances.
Meanwhile, however, K2 makers "have been preparing for the ban by creating new products with undisclosed psychoactive compounds that allegedly circumvent the ban," Kroll writes.
Both Kroll and Nichols say it's virtually impossible to stop chemists from finding and making any of the hundreds of compounds with psychoactive effects academics have discovered. And as Nichols notes, "there really is no way to change the way we publish things" to restrict access to the recipes.