The costs of putting knowledge into the wrong hands

As a chemist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., David Nichols studies psychedelic compounds in a quest to understand the brain, often creating new compounds as part of his research. He was recently dismayed to find himself cited by name in a newspaper article about an amateur chemist who scours the scientific literature for recipes that he can use to produce designer drugs that are legal but untested and often unsafe. In fact, street drugs based on a paper that Nichols published years ago have contributed to a number of deaths. Nichols recently spoke with Science News neuroscience writer Laura Sanders about the misuse of his research and the dangers that can accompany the free exchange of scientific information.

What do we learn from that incremental bit of information compared with the potential for, perhaps, widespread disaster?

How did you learn that people were using your published research to create new drugs?
There was a Wall Street Journal article in their health section in October, and in that article the writer had interviewed a chemist, I believe in Belgium, who was making these so-called ‘legal highs.’ And he was very open about what he did. He said, ‘You know, what I’m doing is legal.’ A former crack addict, by the way…. He said, ‘Well, I search the literature, and the work of David Nichols is particularly valuable to us.’

Were you surprised to see your name?
Well, the thing that happened earlier, in the late 1990s, was that we had been doing research on ecstasy, MDMA, and we had made a compound called MTA. I got an e-mail from a colleague one day that said, ‘Did you know that people have been making tablets with MTA in it, I think in the Netherlands, and a couple of people have died?’ So that was kind of a shocker to me because the work that we had done suggested if anything, it might have utility as an antidepressant that would be a little faster acting than Prozac and the standard antidepressants.

So I thought about that — how did these people die? We didn’t think it was particularly toxic. What I concluded was that maybe they didn’t get the effect they expected, so they took more and more of it.…

It was really kind of ironic that the tablets they made with MTA in it were called ‘flatliners.’ And I had to think, who would buy a drug, a black market drug, called flatliners? I checked later on, and as of 2002, there were five or six people who had died of overdoses….

In general, these molecules, these so-called psychedelics, are not toxic. They don’t kill people because the receptors that they are targeted to are not involved in life-sustaining functions … so I haven’t thought very much about people dying.

I’ve always known people are interested in this class of substances. Even as a graduate student in 1969, if I’d tell people I’m doing research on these types of substances, other graduate students would always say, ‘Oh, do you need any volunteers?’…. My idea has been to try and find tools that unravel how the mind works, and find things that improve memory and cognition, those kinds of things, and if a few people took them and got high, that wasn’t a big concern. But with these things being very widespread now, and being manufactured in large quantities, and of unknown toxicity, you just don’t know what the long-term consequences are.

You chose not to publish some research because you thought it might be used to create a dangerous new drug. Why did you decide that?
In the case of MTA, I never imagined that people would take it and it would be toxic and kill people. So publishing there, I really had no concern.

The case you’re mentioning, there’s a specific molecule that I was aware of in that general class, that I thought if this ever got out and people started using this at raves, it was my impression from what I knew about the molecule that it would have effects very much like ecstasy — it was very toxic…. And when I looked at that one, I said, ‘Well, I can pretty much predict what it’s going to do, but I can also predict that it’ll be much more toxic than anything else out there.’ … So the point was, what do we learn from that incremental bit of information compared with the potential for, perhaps, widespread disaster?…

I say in general, you should publish your information…. But nevertheless, that was one specific case [where] I’ve never talked about the molecule. Nobody knows what the molecule is or anything. But that was one specific case where I said, ‘You know, we’re just not going to learn enough to justify the possible negatives if this really gets out.’ And the way they’ve been watching the literature and what I do, as soon as I publish it I’m sure it would get out, because it would be very cheap to make and all of a sudden there it would be and we’d have serious problems. And I just didn’t want to do that.