MDMA, better-known as Ecstasy, has been shown to cause Parkinson’s Disease in monkeys if the monkeys had actually been getting MDMA. As it happens they were getting methamphetamine instead. Derek Lowe, himself a pharmaceutical chemist, eviscerates the authors politely, as a professional courtesy:
I’m sure that some people are going to point the finger at this group for not checking the samples of MDMA and methamphetamine. But I can’t fault them so much on that point. In vivo pharmacologists are not chemists, and aren’t expected to assay the samples that they’re dosing. In every drug research project I’ve been on, the animal folks make it clear that they depend on compounds being what the label says they are. They have no way to confirm it themselves. (In this case, Research Triangle Institute, the source of the samples, says that things were fine on their end, as you’d figure they would. Depends on where the label came from on that remaining methamphetamine sample, doesn’t it?)
But all that said, I have to then turn around and wonder why the original paper was published at all. I was surprised to learn that their results hadn’t been repeated beforehand. You’d think that this would be necessary, given the public health implications of the work and its variance with the results of others in the field. I can’t help but think that the researchers got their original data, thought they had a hot result that would make everyone sit up straight, and got it into publication as fast as they could.
I’m really taken aback to learn that they hadn’t looked at the original monkeys for MDMA levels before. Getting blood samples from monkeys is no easy task, but why wait until there’s a problem to do the post-mortem brain levels? Those numbers really would have helped to shore up the original results – and would have immediately shown that there was a problem, long before the paper was even published. I don’t like to sound this way, but it’s true: in the drug industry, we consider pharmacokinetic data like this to be essential when interpreting an animal study.
New scientific results are usually new because they’re usually wrong. Science approximates truth only because its results can be replicated. Scientists make mistakes and studies are shot through with error, though rarely so egregiously. You think science journalists might remember this tale next time they trumpet some “ground-breaking” result on the front page? Me neither.
There is a still larger lesson for my vast juvenile readership, who are possibly capable of learning something. Kids, this is very important: don’t do meth thinking it’s Ecstasy. For one thing, it means you got beat, which is embarrassing. For another, it’s linked to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s Disease. In monkeys.