NPR News: Ricaurte MDMA Research Paper Retraction

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Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have taken a highly unusual step. They've retracted a paper they published last year in the journal Science. The research in question involved studies of primates who were supposed to have been given the drug MDMA, better known by its street name, ecstasy. NPR's Joe Palca has this report.

JOE PALCA reporting:

The science paper presented surprising data about ecstasy. The drug appeared to cause the same kind of brain damage that occurs in Parkinson's disease. Many news organizations reported the result, including NPR. Una McCann is one of the authors on the retracted paper. She says some researchers were skeptical about the results. The critics said the damage might have been caused because McCann and her colleagues injected monkeys and baboons with the drug rather than giving it as a pill. So after the first paper was published, the Johns Hopkins team decided to repeat the experiment using the oral form of ecstasy. This time they didn't see the same kind of brain damage.

Ms. UNA McCANN (Johns Hopkins University): We thought, 'There's two possibilities here: either the critics are correct and we are wrong - that the oral route of administration offers more protection than we thought - or perhaps we're doing something differently than we did in the Science paper.'

PALCA: So they went over every step of the experiment trying to find something they had done differently in the injection study compared to the pill study. But they couldn't. And they began to worry that something might be terribly wrong with the first study.

Ms. McCANN: So having looked at everything we could think of, we then said, 'Well, gee, maybe there was something about this batch of drugs.'

PALCA: As they write in the current issue of Science, they found that a shipment of drugs used in the study had been mislabeled. A vial that supposedly contained ecstasy in fact contained methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant. The first paper's results were meaningless.

McCann's critics feel vindicated. Richard Doblin is founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. He says McCann and her co-authors have been trying to demonize ecstasy for a long time. He says McCann's experiment was trying to mimic in animals what humans experience when they take ecstasy. Doblin says warning bells should have gone off when two of the 10 animals given ecstasy in the study died and two other became ill.

Mr. RICHARD DOBLIN (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies): And then I knew that the mortality rate - 20 percent - the fact that another 20 percent of the animals weren't given a third injection, that in no way represented a common recreational dose regimen.

PALCA: Even the wildest party with loads of people taking ecstasy doesn't have that kind of death rate. UCLA Psychiatrist Charles Grob is another critic of McCann's research. He says this isn't the first time he's had issues with studies by McCann and her colleagues.

Dr. CHARLES GROB (Psychiatrist, UCLA): Many of their studies have had seriously flawed methodologies. They've had questionable data interpretation and misleading conclusions. So we would strongly encourage a thorough review of the studies, both recent and over the last 15 years, run by that program.

PALCA: Such a review would not change any of her previous findings, according to McCann. She said she and her colleagues feel horrible about what happened with the Science paper.

Ms. McCANN: Both because as a scientist you don't want to publish things that need to be retracted, regardless of the reason for the retraction, and because it was published in a high-profile journal and, presumably, other scientists seeing the results of that study went on to generate hypotheses of their own and start new experiments, so I wouldn't be surprised if we have caused other laboratories to start experiments that they now have to rethink.

PALCA: Many studies have found that ecstasy does cause certain kinds of damage to the brain. So the retraction of this paper does not mean that all of a sudden ecstasy is safe to use. It does mean that McCann and her colleagues will make extremely sure that any drugs they receive in the future are properly labeled.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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