September 6, 2003
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
A leading scientific journal yesterday retracted a paper it published last year saying that one night’s typical dose of the drug Ecstasy might cause permanent brain damage.
The monkeys and baboons in the study were not injected with Ecstasy but with a powerful amphetamine, said the journal, Science magazine.
The retraction was submitted by the team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that did the study.
A medical school spokesman called the mistake “unfortunate” but said that Dr. George A. Ricaurte, the researcher who made it, was “still a faculty member in good standing whose research is solid and respected.”
The study, released last Sept. 27, concluded that a dose of Ecstasy a partygoer would take in a single night could lead to symptoms resembling Parkinson’s disease.
The study was ridiculed at the time by other scientists working with the drug, who said the primates must have been injected with huge overdoses.
Two of the 10 primates died of heat stroke, they pointed out, and another two were in such distress that they were not given all the doses.
If a typical Ecstasy dose killed 20 percent of those who took it, the critics said, no one would use it recreationally.
In an interview yesterday, Dr. Ricaurte said he realized his mistake when he could not reproduce his own results by giving the drug to monkeys orally. He then realized that two vials his laboratory bought the same day must have been mislabeled: one contained Ecstasy, the other d-methamphetamine.
Dr. Ricaurte’s laboratory has received millions of dollars from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and has produced several studies concluding that Ecstasy is dangerous. Other scientists accuse him of ignoring their studies showing that typical doses do no permanent damage.
At the time Dr. Ricaurte’s study was published, it was strongly defended against those critics by Dr. Alan I. Leshner, the former head of the drug abuse institute, who had just become the chief executive officer of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science.
Dr. Leshner had testified before Congress that Ecstasy was dangerous, and Dr. Ricaurte’s critics accused him of rushing his results into print because a bill known as the Anti-Rave Act was before Congress. The act would punish club owners who knew that drugs like Ecstasy were being used at their dance gatherings.
Dr. Ricaurte yesterday called that accusation “ludicrous.”
His laboratory made “a simple human error,” he said.
“We’re scientists, not politicians.”
Asked why the vials were not checked first, he answered: “We’re not chemists.
We get hundreds of chemicals here. It’s not customary to check them.”