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'Safer' Drugs Found at Music Festivals Contain Meth and Bath Salts

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With the summer festival circuit in full swing, party drugs are more ubiquitous than ever. But are those little pills really what they promise to be? And do users actually care? No, and yes, according to a new research paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The street drug Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) has seen a resurgence and an evolution over the last 10 years. The once-popular variety called Ecstasy has given way to Molly, which is supposedly both purer and safer than its predecessor. 

But the thing about illegal drugs is that, well, they're illegal, which means they're unregulated, which means there's no formalized quality control or consumer protection. You can't know for sure what you're getting. This could mean that the drug fails to get you high. It could also kill you. 

Looking at this problem, behavioral scientists at Johns Hopkins University had two questions: First, if party drug users had a way to check their drugs, would they do it? And second, what would they find?

To find out, the researchers teamed up with the nonprofit DanceSafe, which aims to make the electronic-music scene a safer place. Part of that work involves on-site adulterant screening, better known as pill testing. DanceSafe volunteers bring a mobile lab to a festival or other event and offer attendees cost-free, judgment-free chemical analysis of their pills and powders. 

Over a five-year period between 2010 and 2015, DanceSafe volunteers collected and tested 529 samples of drugs sold as MDMA. To test them, they scraped a tiny sliver or a few grains into a vial, and then mixed it with color-changing chemicals. The testers then compared the resulting color inside the vial with the color-test profile of 29 different substances, including MDMA, sugar, caffeine, and cocaine. 

Unsurprisingly, the results were not great. About 40 percent of the samples contained no MDMA at all and had been adulterated. The most common substitutes included methamphetamine and the compounds called "bath salts." Three samples included the amphetamine called PMA, which has been strongly linked to overdose and death. And the pills sold as Molly were no safer or purer than those sold as Ecstasy.

After sharing the results of a pill test, DanceSafe volunteers typically ask each person if they still intend to take the drugs. Only 26 percent of people with adulterated pills said they did. Interestingly, that number was only 46 percent for people whose MDMA was real—which suggests that the test itself may have caused them to reconsider.

"Our results suggest that some people will reject taking a pill to get high if it doesn't contain what they thought it did, or has harmful additives," corresponding author Matthew W. Johnson said in a statement.

Because their plans were self-reported, it's hard to know for sure what any of these people actually did next. They might have taken the drugs anyway, given them away, or sold them.

Judgment-free pill testing is not without controversy, and it's hard to design controlled experiments when illegal substances are involved. Still, the researchers say, these findings should give us pause.

"People would be safest not taking any street drugs at all," Johnson said. "But if free, no-fault testing can reduce deaths and other catastrophic consequences, it may be a service worth having."

Johnson and his colleagues urge would-be MDMA users to think hard about these findings: "People who take pills and first responders need to know that no matter how the pills are branded or what name they are sold as, they almost always contain a mix of ingredients."

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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Medicine
New Peanut Allergy Patch Could Be Coming to Pharmacies This Year
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About 6 million people in the U.S. and Europe have severe peanut allergies, including more than 2 million children. Now, French biotechnology company DBV Technologies SA has secured an FDA review for its peanut allergy patch, Bloomberg reports.

If approved, the company aims to start selling the Viaskin patch to children afflicted with peanut allergies in the second half of 2018. The FDA's decision comes in spite of the patch's disappointing study results last year, which found the product to be less effective than DBV hoped (though it did receive high marks for safety). The FDA has also granted Viaskin breakthrough-therapy and fast-track designations, which means a faster review process.

DBV's potentially life-saving product is a small disc that is placed on the arm or between the shoulder blades. It works like a vaccine, exposing the wearer's immune system to micro-doses of peanut protein to increase tolerance. It's intended to reduce the chances of having a severe allergic reaction to accidental exposure.

The patch might have competition: Aimmune Therapeutics Inc., which specializes in food allergy treatments, and the drug company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. are working together to develop a cure for peanut allergies.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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