Legal high makers 'used my blueprints', US chemist says

By Neil Bowdler
Science reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Professor David Nichols
Image caption,
Professor David Nichols says his work was misappropriated

An American chemist has spoken out against the misuse of scientific research to create designer drugs.

Writing in the journal Nature, Professor David Nichols of Purdue University, Indiana, says he is "haunted" by deaths linked to a drug based on his own research.

MTA or "flatliners" used a blueprint published by the professor and was sold as a "legal high", drugs which mimic the effects of illegal substances. It has since been banned as a class-A drug in the UK.

Back in the 1990s, Professor Nichols and colleagues were experimenting with chemicals similar to the one used in the drug ecstasy.

The hope was that the research might lead to new drugs to treat depression. He published three papers on the effects on rats of one chemical called 4-methylthioamphetamine or MTA.

It later emerged the work had been used to create pills dubbed "flatliners", which were linked with at least six deaths.

But it is only recently that the professor has become fully aware of how the designer drugs industry has been systematically mining his work for recipes.

"It's not like you took a gun and shot somebody because then you would know you'd been responsible," he told the BBC, "but people were taking something that you had published and I was alerting them that this might be an active molecule."

Kitchen lab

Professor Nichols says MTA, and other chemicals he has developed, can be created in a kitchen laboratory.

"It is something that someone with a PhD, if they're really determined to do it, could probably set up in a laboratory in their kitchen.

"If they could get the necessary chemicals, they could make some of these things, but these drugs are being made on a much larger scale than just the occasional chemist with the curiosity.

"It sounds like these things have really become a small industry."

The professor is by no means the only scientist to have his work plundered by the drug makers.

He says several synthetic drugs which mimic the effects of cannabis have been developed using data from publicly available scientific literature.

The British authorities have moved to ban a host of "legal highs" in recent years including GBL, BZP and mephedrone.

Mephedrone, which is also known as "meow", was banned last year after it was associated, in some cases wrongly, with a number of deaths.

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