Whining about antioxidants

Sounds cute doesn’t it, a gadget that tells you how good that glass of wine is for you?  A Swiss company has produced a device that will measure levels of antioxidants, chemicals found in wine and thought by some to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer (Scientists unveil device to show wine’s health benefits, Guardian, October 5th , http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/05/device-measure-red-wine-antioxidants).   In the future, according to the article, levels of antioxidants might be given on a bottle of wine and some wines could be labelled as “this drink is good for you”.    

But how good is the science behind these claims?  It’s an emotive and very confusing topic so I had a look at what the British Heart Foundation says about wine and heart disease.  They say that there is evidence suggesting that red wine might be good for heart health but they add the caveat that “this still needs to be substantiated in controlled studies”.  What they are referring to is the gold standard method for establishing effects of a drug or other chemical on humans.  The substance is tested in a randomised manner in a large population versus a control no-drug group.   Controlled trials of the effects of wine are very difficult to perform as wine is not a uniform product.  So the evidence has to come from studies comparing drinking habits and the incidence of heart disease.  Interpretation of these kinds of studies may be difficult as there could be additional factors such as diet that differ between a wine drinking group and a non-wine drinking group.

But if we accept that there is some evidence for a beneficial effect of wine on heart disease is it correct to focus on antioxidants?   Let’s take the British Heart Foundation’s advice here again.  They say that small amounts (1-2 units) of any alcoholic drink taken regularly may offer some protection against heart disease.  If this is true then focussing on the beneficial effects of antioxidants in wine may be misguided and it may be the alcohol that is more important.  But actually this is a very controversial area and some people think that there is something in red wine (antioxidants?) that confers additional protection. 

But let’s look again at the case for antioxidants?  Antioxidants are thought to prevent damage by free radicals associated with heart disease and cancer and it sounds plausible that antioxidant-rich wines would be helpful.   If this is true then it might be expected that any substance that had antioxidant properties would also be beneficial against heart disease or cancer.  Here it is possible to do a meaningful controlled trial as pure antioxidants are available as food supplements and have been carefully tested e.g. vitamins A, C and E.  There is an authoritative review of all the controlled antioxidant trials that have been performed and this review showed that there were no beneficial effects of antioxidants on overall mortality from any cause and in some cases the antioxidants increased mortality.

This doesn’t look very good for the antioxidant hypothesis and it may be that beneficial effects of wine are not associated with antioxidants but are due to its alcohol content.  It would be wrong, however, to recommend consumption of wine as a lifestyle choice to prevent heart disease, especially as drinking more than the recommended limits can have negative effects on the heart and can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.  There are far safer and healthier ways to protect the heart such as physical activity, eating a healthy and balanced diet and giving up smoking.   We are still some way from labelling wine bottles as “this drink is good for you”.

Red Kites and folk music

When I lived in Reading, as I did until a year ago, I became aware of the red kites.  These birds had become extinct in England but were successfully re-introduced in to the Chilterns in the early 90’s and have prospered.  There are now over 300 breeding pairs and their story is a conservation success.  They can regularly be seen circling in a slightly marauding manner over the Chilterns but also making passes over Reading. 

The melodeon virtuoso John Spiers has written a slow air entitled “Red Kites”, celebrating their re-introduction and we saw him play this sweet tune on Saturday evening.  He and his long time collaborator Jon Boden were performing here in Totnes and what a brilliant concert it was with the two musicians creating such energy and joy.  You can only marvel at the musicianship of the two men with Boden having the ability to sing and play the fiddle at the same time, a physical impossibility for me.  Spiers provides a superb melodeon or concertina foil for Boden and contributes a strong drive to the music.  Their slightly amplified folk music is light years away from the traditional “hand on ear” folk.  Despite this they revel in the spirit of the stories told in the songs and in the folk song and morris dance melodies.

The science and the art of bread making

As part of my crusade to spread understanding of science more widely, I have an article in the latest edition of Devon Life Magazine on the  science and the art of bread making.  The article features an artisan baker, Emma Parkin, based near Exeter (her web address is http://www.emmasbread.co.uk/).  We had a very pleasant time meeting Emma at her stall in Exeter Farmers Market and at her bakery at Shillingford Abbot.  The article can be read on the Devon Life page on this site.

More evidence for uncertainty following the mephedrone ban

Information is beginning to emerge showing that a very unstable situation has been created following the banning of mephedrone and the impending ban on naphyrone. Three studies have been reported in greater or lesser detail showing the variability of the mephedrone-related drugs now available to users.

Dr John Lough and his team at the University of Sunderland analysed six samples of mephedrone obtained over the internet (http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=81203&CultureCode=en) .  They found that the drug samples were fairly pure suggesting that they had been made in an organic chemistry lab but three variants of particle size and crystalline form were identified.   The team speculate that differences in the physical state of the drug may lead to differences in availability once ingested.  Users could, therefore, experience different doses.

In a second report, Dr John Ramsay from St Georges Hospital analysed two samples of drugs sold as mephedrone substitutes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10682487).  They were labelled as MDAI (5,6-methylenedioxy-2-aminoindane) and NRG-1 (a name used by internet suppliers for naphyrone).  Neither sample contained the compound expected and Dr Ramsay reported the presence of a chemical not previously seen.

A third report from Brandt and colleagues in the BMJ  (http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/341/jul06_1/c3564) described analyses of samples of drugs available over the internet following the mephedrone ban.  Analysis of ten samples labelled NRG-1 revealed only one containing naphyrone, the others containing various illegal cathinones including mephedrone. 

These reports underline the uncertainty of the supply of drugs from internet suppliers.  Users will often not be consuming materials they expected.  They may also be in possession of illegal materials whereas they purchased what they thought was a legal substance. 

Internet supply of drugs has changed drug availability forever, but simply banning drugs fails to provide a solution.

Continuing fallout from the mephedrone ban


This is the text of an article that appeared in the magazine “House” published for the House of Commons in London (http://www.epolitix.com/house-magazine/housemag-article/newsarticle/plant-foods-with-an-unknown-yield/ ).

In the pre-election ferment, one of the last actions of the outgoing government was to ban the “legal high” drug, mephedrone.  This occurred in a climate of rabid press calls for regulation, partly fuelled by the deaths of two young men from Scunthorpe, supposed to have taken the drug.  It now turns out that this evidence was incorrect, they had not taken mephedrone.  Nevertheless, given the febrile atmosphere, the ban may have given some people the comfortable feeling that a situation was under control.  

I doubt, however, that the situation is under control.  There was stockpiling of mephedrone before it was banned and some of that will now be circulating.  Some users will have switched back to cocaine or ecstasy of dubious purity.  Drug availability has, however, been changed forever by the provision of cheap synthesis in the Far East coupled with internet supply.  At the time of the ban there was speculation that other “legal highs”, provided via the ingenuity of chemists in the Far East, were already waiting in the wings to replace mephedrone.   We can now see some of these advertised by internet suppliers and all you need is a credit card to place an order. Naphyrone was one of these and it has very recently been recommended that this should become illegal.  Other examples of new drugs are MDAI, 5-IAI and 2-DPMP, all of which are currently legal; others are under development such as 6-APDB   So, banning mephedrone may have reduced its use but may have lead to switching to other, in some cases newer, drugs.

It is important to emphasise the uncertainty surrounding the use of these kinds of drugs.  Firstly, the psychological effects of the new drugs are not well established and there are some alarming reports circulating on the internet.  Secondly, we have only a rudimentary idea of how the new drugs, including mephedrone, work biologically and no idea how they affect the brains of young people upon prolonged use. The new drugs have often not been tested for toxic effects such as neurotoxicity, cardiotoxicity or causing cancer or birth defects.    Thirdly, for all of the drugs I have mentioned, there is the issue of their purity.  The suppliers on the internet claim high purity but there is no guarantee that the figures are accurate and samples obtained elsewhere may be cut with undefined substances.  A recent report showed that there was extensive mislabelling of these drugs.  Users may, therefore be consuming unknown mixtures of chemicals. 

People are, therefore, ingesting compounds of undefined biology, uncertain purity and unknown toxicity, acting unwittingly as human guinea pigs.    This unregulated situation is reminiscent of the mid 20th century era of pharmaceuticals.

Despite these potential dangers, people clearly want to take drugs to change their perception/mood.  We must try to understand this need and take action to protect people from the dangers. The government should urgently set up research programmes to study these new drugs. The research programmes should aim to understand how the drugs work as well as establishing their possible long term effects, including toxicity.  Once this information is available, the government should intensify public education programmes to make people aware of the risks they run when they take these drugs.

We should also consider one potential, but I believe unlikely, outcome of the research suggested above.  One or more of the substances mentioned above may turn out to be safe to use.  There would then need to be a debate about whether it might be better to supply these drugs in a regulated manner rather than allowing the present unregulated situation to prevail.


the known unknowns of mephedrone

The current debate in the UK about mephedrone is generating a lot of heat but not so much light.  Perhaps a look at the underlying science might point out some issues that have not been widely discussed. Let’s start at the end of 2009 when several “legal high” drugs were banned.

One of these was Spice, sold in head shops and on the internet and marketed as a herbal smoking mixture that promised a natural high.  Spice was very popular as a cannabis substitute and did indeed offer a high to those who smoked it.  It took some time before it was realised that Spice was not an innocuous herbal mixture.  It turned out that someone, probably in the Far East, was concocting a herbal mixture and then spraying this with some chemicals that had been shown to mimic the action of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active principal of cannabis.  Two of the more popular chemicals used were JWH-018, originally synthesised in an academic lab in the US as part of a curiosity driven research programme and CP 47,497 originally synthesised by Pfizer as a potential drug but not developed.  Both of these compounds had been shown by their originators to mimic potently the actions of THC.  Other THC-mimics were also found in some batches of Spice and eventually the JWH-018 chemical itself became available over the internet. 

What do we learn from this?  Spice was not a uniform product and those who smoked it were consuming an unknown mixture of psychoactive chemicals.  Although the levels of these chemicals were not high, the levels were not defined, and neither was their purity.  Many of the chemicals had not been properly tested for toxic effects such as neurotoxicity or causing cancer or birth defects.  When JWH-018 became available it was also of uncertain purity and it’s availability meant that people could consume larger amounts leading to some frightening effects.  So the lessons from the Spice story are that people smoking Spice mixtures or taking JWH-018 were taking big risks as they didn’t know the composition or purity of the material and the potential toxic effects were undefined.

Let’s now move to 2010 and the recent controversy over mephedrone.  Mephedrone is a member of a class of chemicals called cathinones and has been available through head shops and the internet.  Cathinone was originally identified as the active compound in Khat, a plant preparation chewed as a stimulant  in Africa and the Arabian peninsula.  Mephedrone itself is not found in khat but is a synthetic cathinone.

We have a rudimentary idea about how some of the cathinones work; they have been shown to alter the brain levels of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters in a similar but not identical way to amphetamine or ecstasy.  The psychological effects of mephedrone reported by users are consistent with this.  Mephedrone has, however, been synthesised only recently and as a result there is no firm information on how it works or how it might affect brain function when consumed on a longer term basis.  We also have no idea about its potential toxic effects (neurotoxicity, cancer, birth defects etc).  As with JWH-018 there is the issue of the purity.  The suppliers of mephedrone on the internet claim high purity but there is no guarantee that the figures are accurate and samples obtained elsewhere may be cut with undefined substances.    

So in both the cases I have described, people are consuming chemicals of uncertain purity, unknown toxicity and, in the case of mephedrone, unknown biology.    We would not tolerate this situation in a pharmaceutical drug.  Indeed the unregulated situation with mephedrone is reminiscent of the mid 20th century era of pharmaceuticals.   I am also reminded of the story that emerged in 1982 when heroin addicts in California were sold a synthetic narcotic contaminated with an impurity called MPTP.   MPTP turned out to be a neurotoxin causing a syndrome very like Parkinson’s disease in users. 

Both Spice and mephedrone have now been banned but I doubt if this will contain the situation.  Demand for these kinds of drugs is not going to go away, and this will be satisfied by the internet and by synthesis of new compounds.  Chemical synthesis in the Far East is available readily and cheaply and there are reports that more chemicals have been prepared in time for the banning of mephedrone.  The ingenuity of these suppliers will ensure other chemicals enter our market.

What can be done?   The government should urgently set up a research programme on the biological and toxic effects of these new substances.  We would then know how the substances work and whether they do or do not pose risks.  We also need to understand why people want to take these drugs.  We could then use this knowledge about the drugs to educate people about the risks they may be running in taking them.




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