Scripps Institute Finds Designer Drug, Bath Salts Are More Potent, Addictive Than Meth
July 16, 2013 1:38 p.m.
Dr. Michael Taffe, is a psychologist and an associate professor with the Scripps Research Institute, Committee On The Neurobiology Of Addictive Disorders
Dr. Tobin Dickerson, Associate Professor Department of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute
Related Story: Scripps Institute Finds Designer Drug, Bath Salts Are More Potent, Addictive Than Meth
ST. JOHN: Last year, almost 100 sailors were kicked out of the Navy in San Diego for using a new recreational drug known as bath salts. This year, the Navy produced service announcements to warn sailors of the drug. They weren't the only ones experimenting with the compound. Bath salts are a designer drug developed in a lab, and scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have had a chance to analyze the compound, and they've made some interesting discoveries. Our guests, doctor Michael Taft, thank you so much for coming in.
TAFT: Thanks for having us.
ST. JOHN: And also Tobin Dickerson, of the department of chemistry.
DICKERSON: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: Did one of you take the lead? What was it that motivated you to take on this research?
TAFT: Well, when these drugs started appearing in 2009, 2010, we as scientists read the literature, and this wasn't much known about them. So we looked around the suppliers, we couldn't find the supplies. So I walked up to my chemistry friend here. And he said no problem.
ST. JOHN: Was this something that leapt to the front of something you wanted to research?
DICKERSON: Certainly. My lab has an interest in evolving disease and emerging diseases. And drug abuse is no different. In this case it was these compounds that were relatively easy to make.
ST. JOHN: So what exactly is this drug? What are they made of?
DICKERSON: The classive compounds is called cathin owns, that's the technical term. But they're derived from -- there are natural products that come from plants that are similar. But in this case, these were made in someone's garage in the case of a user. And they are sort of related to amphetamines but not completely like them.
ST. JOHN: Okay. And doctor Taft, how do they affect the brain?
TAFT: The general class of stimulants, they tend to affect the main neurotransmitters or chemicals in the brain everyone has heard of, Dopamine, serotonin, and their activities are prolonging the activity of Dopamine. And these drugs are no different.
ST. JOHN: Dopamine is like pleasure?
TAFT: It's very much related to the rewarding or enforcing value of a drug or other natural reenforces like food that you eat, for example. And drugs have the ability to coopt these systems and stimulate them very powerfully in the case of chronic use and the development of addiction.
ST. JOHN: When people talk about drugs, they don't talk about why people take them. Obviously there's some effect they like. So how does this affect people in a way that they might become addicted?
TAFT: Well, it makes them feel good. These reward pathways are there to make us do things that are good as a species. Like food and the opportunity for reproduction. So they're natural systems, but drugs are very powerful stimulators of those systems. The difficulty with stimulants is that in very high doses, they produce tachycardia, disruptions of the heart function, they can make people delusional that they're indistinguishable from somebody having a psychotic break. And other system failures. You can have incredible high body temperature. Literature is showing there are deaths related to the compound we're studying.
ST. JOHN: How did you conduct the study then? And what did you find?
TAFT: These were studies conducted in the rats, and they're given an intravenous line, and they press a lever for a stimulant or drug. And we compared it to methamphetamine, and we found these rats pressed the lever a lot more for these bath salts compounds than they would for methamphetamine. In the end, they would press ten times more for that last dose of drug. The other way we can look at this is that we reduce the results that are available for each lever press.
ST. JOHN: So, you had to design the drug. Did you have an example of it to go off?
DICKERSON: No. Unfortunately not. There were no seizures that we could compare against. So it was known in the literature that there had been some forensic evidence from hospitals, from ERs, where they characterized the molecules and what it looked like. And then we used our chemistry tools and built it from scratch. And we were able to build it in the sense that we had to make large quantities of it for the animal studies. And we simulated how a user would make this. So we made large amounts using minimal equipment in the lab and were able to make enough to get all the studies done and really understand what's going on.
ST. JOHN: And you're pretty clear that what you managed to produce was what bath salts --
DICKERSON: Oh, certainly. There's a rigorous set of tools we use when we make any molecule, whether it's a drug like this or a pharmaceutical molecule.
ST. JOHN: Was it difficult to produce?
DICKERSON: No. Unfortunately not. And that's the reality of these drugs though. For a complex synthesis, you wouldn't see that in the drug-using population because they would have to have those resources to do that. And those resources aren't available outside of the lab. Most of the drugsued are derived from easily available chemicals using readily available tools.
ST. JOHN: Are they being produce said in the United States? Who is doing this?
DICKERSON: A lot of what's happening in the U.S. indicates it's being made in the U.S. and distributed certainly in the U.S.
ST. JOHN: Okay. So as the psychologist, you are interested on how it affects people. And what did you find with the rats? You're not legally allowed to use people to do your research.
TAFT: We don't do human studies research. But other scientists do, generally in the United States, that requires they have a preexisting use of that substance. But in this case, this is rat studies. So beyond what I just described to you in terms of how much they like to work for the intravenous infusion, we also look at behaviors after the a high-dose exposure. They have stereotype behavior in which they engage in licking and repetitive movements that at least in the rat tends to be a pretty good correlate of what you see in human when is they engage in high-dose stimulant behavior. It looks in some cases like psychosis that you would see with schizophrenia. So we think this is an indicator that it's not a strong propensity for generating this psychotic, uncontrolled aspects of behavior.
ST. JOHN: The key thing you discover side how addictive it is.
TAFT: It's much more powerful in our hands than what we see with methamphetamine. And we all know methamphetamine as a compulsive use problem. By extension, we anticipate this is going to be a drug which is going to have a high propensity for addicting people.
ST. JOHN: Why is it more addictive?
DICKERSON: It's hard to say. Chemically speaking, we wouldn't have predicted this behavior at all. It would be more similar to MDMA, but it's not.
ST. JOHN: So is it possible someone was trying to produce ecstasy and came up with this instead?
DICKERSON: It was likely they were going down the same path of making molecules that look like other drugs they already know how to make. And yeah, in this case, it may have started that way. But the reality the drug in population is one that tests a number of things. And the ones that are accepted in the population are those that have strong reenforcement properties or produce a unique sensation for the drug user.
ST. JOHN: But you were surprised that it was not similar to ecstasy
DICKERSON: Certainly. This is much more of a classic, clean stimulant. Like methamphetamine but more potent. We had animals that were pressing hundreds of times on a single lever just to get a single dose by the end of the study.
ST. JOHN: So very difficult for a subject to stop having once started. Can you talk about how addictive it might be? Is this something where you take it once and you might be hooked?
TAFT: No. I have to clarify. For any substance abuse, many, many more people experience them once or several times and never become addicted. The outcome of severe addiction is a minority outcome, but it's pretty severe for people that get it. Something on the order of 15% of people that experience these in significant amounts will become addicted. But that's modified by an awful lot of factors having to do with your social economic status, things that are going on in your life, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, other issues.
ST. JOHN: Well, are the Navy did come under some scrutiny for this, and they acted fast and excelled 90 sailors last year. Is this the kind of thing that you are looking to get ahead of? It's possible to produce another drug that's similar but legal.
TAFT: What we've seen is much like the '80s with amphetamines, we have an explosion of designer cathinones. So part of what we try to do is to get ahead of the curve, and one things driving the military use was the ability to evade detection. And we would like to be able to come up with some predictions that are getting ahead of on the designers that are modifying these compounds.
DICKERSON: To come up with new ones is easy. The drug that's in this study was already controlled by the government. So it's not legal to make it anymore. And new cathinones have already emerged.
ST. JOHN: How are you finding out about that?
DICKERSON: You see it generally from hospitals. The local laboratories that hospitals have. And they say someone came in, and they thought they had bath salt like exposure, and they sent a blood sample off. And it comes back as potentially cathin owns but they can't tell which one. And that coalically compromises your ability to treat.
ST. JOHN: Before we leave the treatment, what in fact is the treatment for taking this?
DICKERSON: You're talking about symptomology. So elevated body temperature, you're putting someone in ice. And in some cases, you're talking about things like activated charcoal that can just bind up the drug and get it out of the system. But the treatment itself is not specific to the bath salt as much as the symptoms they're expressing, the tachycardia, those sorts of things.
ST. JOHN: How are you hoping your research will help public policy?
TAFT: Well, one of the troubles we have in science is we tend to lag behind emerging drug trends like this one. And this has shown us that fact. We're trying to come up with ways to get out in front so we can get on the research, have predicted models, and better information to predict as the new drugs emerge, how dangerous they're going to be. And we look at compulsive use, acute toxicity, and long-term toxicity. It's our job to find this information for personal health decisions and public policy.
ST. JOHN: IT sounds like trying to stay ahead of hackers in the world of computer viruses. Is that how you feel?
DICKERSON: It's very similar. There's a lot of analogies in science where we're reactive. We wait and then play catch-up. You can make comparisons to the flu. There's a new disease, and then we react to is it and try to come up with cures. And what we really want to do is get an idea of the landscape of the drugs a user could use. Because one of the reasons users go after drugs as well is that they want a different high. They want to feel differently. So you want to see which drugs do look different. The current drug we wouldn't have predicted its abilities to be this potent of a stimulant.
ST. JOHN: And I have to ask when you can really establish where a drug is effective or not by using lab rats as opposed to people.
TAFT: The history has been for the stimulant class that it's really predictive of how significant the abuse problem is going to be. It's not always directly comparable, but it has a pretty predictive value.
ST. JOHN: Do you think that traditional drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are going to be on the outs, and really the drug war is going to be fighting more and more these kind of designer drugs?
TAFT: I think one of the outcomes of looking at the diversity of these cathin own compounds is that ultimately some drugs in terms of a market share issue are going to stick around. There were other amphetamines that people tried and they just disappeared. Same with these. Some will stick around for a while, and some will disappear. From our work so far, MVPV is going to be one of those that joins the pantheon of drugs that stick around.
ST. JOHN: Did you have trouble getting funding for this study?
DICKERSON: We have had significant difficulties thus far. And part of it, we think is a function of this paradigm change. We're taking a drug, wait until there's a significant human problem, and then thoroughly characterize it, which may take years to accomplish that. We are trying to change this paradigm so we're out in front of the problem and moving through a lot of drugs faster to understand which ones are -- essentially it's a triage. It's understanding which ones need to be studied, and which ones are similar to other drugs and will be adopted in the first place.
ST. JOHN: Does this come from the national institute of health?
TAFT: Generally. So like every other government entity, the budgets are under a lot of fir. That is one of the problems. It's just a matter of the era we're in right now where the public funding for science is tighter than it could be.
ST. JOHN: Are you hearing from law enforcement or any other people in San Diego or emergency rooms who are very concerned that your research might be able to go ahead and get ahead of the drugs?
TAFT: We've published a number of papers, and it's very well received. Right from the beginning. We're getting calls from the DEA asking for policy issues and our data. So there's a desire on various stakeholders to see this information and learn more about what these drugs do.
ST. JOHN: Is there some concern that some compound you develop might get out of your lab and hit the market?
DICKERSON: That's a dual-use problem. We have had some mention of it. This has happened before in the drug community, with compounds that were like THC. The reality of it is that the users are already moving, and they've already moved further. So the chances of a dual-use issue are less than that, because the users are already adopting for other reasons than our science, and they're required to go through our scientific papers. So there are things in place in the scientific community that limit what information is publicly accessible in terms of how to make the drugs, for example.
ST. JOHN: Okay. I can see that would be important. Last year more than 2,000 people nationwide called control centers after reactions they experienced, and this year that number has dropped to just a few hundred. I don't know if that's as a result of your research, but I guess your research, you're attempting to make that clamping down happen a bit sooner for new drug; is that right?
TAFT: The epidemiology is a question that we like to look at. And those numbers go up and down every year. The long-term trend for drugs, for any compound, it ebbs and flows.
ST. JOHN: So it's a continuing problem.
ST. JOHN: We can't say we've got it beat. Okay. Well, thank you both very much.
TAFT: Thank you.
DICKERSON: Thank you.