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University research reveals risks of banned drug
14 July 2010
Sunderland, University of
Pharmaceutical scientists have discovered that the recently reclassified drug mephedrone varies in quality so much that users could be at risk of overdosing. Six samples were tested in the University of Sunderland’s labs by Dr John Lough and his team, and although impurities levels were low, three samples revealed various particle size and crystalline form, which means that the drug is more likely to vary in its affect and safety on the user.
Researchers have discovered that the recently reclassified drug mephedrone varies in quality so much that users could be at risk of overdosing.
Pharmaceutical scientists at the University of Sunderland have been examining samples of the now illegal drug, also known as M-cat, Miaow-Miaow and Moonshine, which is popular among some young clubbers and was being sold online as plant fertilizer.
At least four deaths in the UK earlier this year were linked in media reports to the so-called “legal high”, and following pressure on the Government, the drug was reclassified as an illegal Class B drug in April.
Six samples were tested in the University of Sunderland’s labs by Dr John Lough and his team, and although impurities levels were low, three samples revealed various particle size and crystalline form, which means that the drug is more likely to vary in its affect and safety on the user.
Dr Lough said: “What we have found is that mephedrone bought over the Internet does not come in the same crystalline form, there are different sizes. We tested six samples and identified three different types of crystals.
“While our batch was almost free from organic impurities, the tests are a very good illustration that drugs of abuse are more likely to be of variable quality and therefore of variable safety and efficacy.”
PhD student Nagendra Singh alongside students on the newly introduced MSc Drug Discovery and Development course at the university’s Faculty of Applied Sciences, used separation techniques to test the purity, size, or whether mephedrone was being cut with other chemicals.
They also determined that a lack of organic impurities, suggested the samples had been developed in synthetic chemistry labs, rather than being cut together in back street dens.
Dr Lough said: “Safety is generally linked to the concentration of a drug circulating in the body. If mephedrone displayed adverse effects at concentrations close to that needed by users to obtain a 'hit' then there would be a serious danger of users suffering adverse effects because of the uncertainty surrounding how much drug they were ingesting.
“For example, if using a different crystalline form from that which they were used to they could end up with much higher levels of drug circulating in their
body than they were used to.
“Having said that, just like prescription drugs, it might take years of toxicology studies and clinical trials to establish conclusively whether given levels of mephedrone gave rise to serious adverse effects. Users taking a different crystalline form from usual might also end up having much lower levels of drug in circulation and build up a habit of taking higher quantities of drug.”
Dr Lough believes because of the initial experience of testing mephedrone samples, the university is well placed globally to develop further scientific techniques to quickly establish the latest ‘legal highs’ dealers are trying to push.
He said: “We probably know more than most about the quality of the drug substance samples - not just because of the wide range of pharmaceutical expertise and analytical techniques available to us at the university but also because we were fortunate enough to be able to buy up samples from the Internet before the drug became illegal.
“Mephedrone caused quite a stir so I'm sure others will now be studying other aspects of its use such as the toxicology of the drug itself and how it interacts with other drugs and/or alcohol.”
There is still some additional research taking place into the six samples. However, the team’s main area of interest is separation science, and it was through developing separative methods to determine the purity of mephedrone that the university ended up getting into a wider study of the samples.
Dr Lough said: “Our University has invested very heavily in instrumentation for ultra-rapid analysis by separative methods. One way forward for us therefore might be to develop very quick generic methods so that we can quickly pick up on new legal highs which are fairly certain to come along.”
This, and other types of applied research, are expected to grow considerably with the opening later this year of the University of Sunderland’s new £7.5m sciences complex.
The new facility, which opens in December, will deliver research with ‘real world’ impact – research that quickly transfers from the laboratory into the public domain, be it new drugs and therapies, improved health practices or benefits to the environment.
A range of health issues will be supported through the new development.
The university will work closely with businesses and organisations in the health sector to allow them access to leading science experts and some of the most up-to-date facilities in the UK.