Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Science Ethics

It has often been a subject of ethical debate: Should scientists work on projects which may end up being used in unethical ways. The most common of these, of course, surrounded the development of the atomic bomb during WW II. Some looked back on their involvement with regret. Others didn't. Should they or shouldn't they?

Well, in the news today was David Nichols, a synthetic chemist and chairman of the Purdue University pharmacology department. He wrote in the journal Nature how he is bothered by the fact that there are those who use his published research in ways that could harm people. His article begins:

This is the start of the international year of chemistry, intended to celebrate the contribution of my field to mankind's well-being. Yet, during the previous year it has become disturbingly clear to me that some of my scientific contributions may not be aiding people's well-being at all. In fact, they could be causing real harm.

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal. It described a "laboratory-adept European entrepreneur" and his chief chemist, who were mining the scientific literature to find ideas for new designer drugs — dubbed legal highs. I was particularly disturbed to see my name in the article, and that I had "been especially valuable" to their cause. I subsequently received e-mails saying I should stop my research, and that I was an embarrassment to my university.
His study of MMDA (street name: Ecstasy) was being followed by these "entrepreneurs" to make better designer drugs. Nichols purpose was to help in psychotherapy and other possible uses in neurochemistry. He writes:
I was stunned by this revelation, and it left me with a hollow and depressed feeling for some time. By 2002, six deaths had been associated with the use of MTA. It did not help that I knew some of these fatalities were associated with the use of multiple drugs, or had involved very large doses of MTA. I had published information that ultimately led to human death.
None of the chemicals, he says, in and of themselves are fatal, but in a toxic mix, as is often the case in club situations, they can be lethal. This has caused Nichols some personal pain. He ends with:
[I]t really disturbs me that 'laboratory-adept European entrepreneurs' and their ilk appear to have so little regard for human safety and human life that the scant information we publish is used by them to push ahead and market a product designed for human consumption. Although the testing procedure for 'safety' that these people use apparently determines only whether the substance will immediately kill them, there are many different types of toxicity, not all of which are readily detectable. For example, what if a substance that seems innocuous is marketed and becomes wildly popular on the dance scene, but then millions of users develop an unusual type of kidney damage that proves irreversible and difficult to treat, or even life-threatening or fatal? That would be a disaster of immense proportions. This question, which was never part of my research focus, now haunts me.
Sadly, given the opportunity to make a buck (or millions of bucks) some people lose any ethical understanding. They lose perspective of what they are doing. No, not Nichols. He is speaking out and is now bringing into the public eye once again the questions surrounding scientific ethics. My guess is that some will criticize him for having spoken out while others will criticize him for his work. He will not be praised as much as he will be criticized.

Which is sad. This is an issue that needs to be widely discussed. Not just about designer drugs, but about those prescription drugs that get pulled off the market years after they were introduced because "all-of-a-sudden" people discover they are causing problems- like heart attacks or birth defects. Sometimes the drug companies and the scientists knew of these risks; sometimes they didn't.

Modern chemistry has brought us miracles. But it has also brought us disasters- just like most human endeavors, including organized religions. These discussions on ethics are an essential part of research- and the public sphere.

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