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Unintended Consequences


Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1867 with the intention of making a name for himself and improving his business. He was said to have been troubled when he found that the military was interested in his work and its potential as a weapon. Throughout history, researchers have made exciting discoveries only to find later that their work had been used for dangerous or even nefarious purposes.

In 1974, chemist David Nichols joined the Purdue University faculty and began investigating hallucinogens and psychoactive drugs as possible treatments for neurological diseases like Parkinson's or mood disorders like depression. In the mid 1990s, Nichols conducted some studies on MDMA, and published a paper showing the drug was as good as standard antidepressants in a rat model of depression. "And that's where we left it," he says.

Some years later, however, Nichols heard that some people had put MDMA into tablets, called them Ecstasy, and sold them as recreational drugs. Some who took the drug died. "When you find out that someone has died as a result [of your work], even indirectly, it's hard," Nichols says. "I think I've used the word 'stunned' [before], but it's really an indescribable feeling."

Although he first questioned whether there was something he should, or even could, have done differently, Nichols says he eventually came to terms with the idea that his work was used for illicit purposes, because he couldn't have predicted that people would abuse these substances or mix them with other drugs in order to achieve a high.

In any case, he adds, it would be very difficult — if not impossible — to keep research such as his under wraps. "The paradigm in science is to pretty much publish everything you find," Nichols says. "Alfred Nobel was appalled when dynamite was used for military purposes, and radiation was the same way — there's a potential to abuse all this research. But had nothing been published on radiation, we wouldn't have all this modern technology and the diagnostic techniques we now have."

Responsible or not?

Others say that researchers have an ethical responsibility to try to keep their work from being used in dangerous ways. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan says although it is difficult for researchers to predict how their work could be used, oftentimes, they are naïve when it comes to determining the possible consequences of their research. "If you make a pipe and someone uses it to beat someone over the head with, I guess that's loosely foreseeable, but that's not [your intention], whereas if you make a dangerous synthetic microbe and some terrorist uses it, I think you're responsible." he says. "I think you have to have a reasonable ability to forecast possible misuse and misapplication."
It's one thing to miss the possible consequences the first time around, but researchers who build their entire careers on work that has been misused in the past can hardly claim they never saw the danger coming, Caplan adds. "I'm not saying, 'Don't do the work.' I'm simply saying you need to think about how detailed the information is that you publish," he says.

The problem with such ideas, however, is that when researchers start thinking about how to keep their work from falling into the wrong hands, "they start getting hives, thinking, 'Oh my goodness, we're going to be censored,'" Caplan says. However, he adds, "that's not really realistic. What's being talked about is if you see a pattern of abuse of your work over a sustained period of time, what steps can you take to minimize that harm — do you want to make special arrangements with journals not to release every little secret? Do you want to notify various federal authorities that something might be coming up?" It's also possible that nothing can be done at all to prevent misuse, and the potentially harmful consequences are the price society has to pay for taking advantage of the benefits of important science, he adds. But researchers do have to take the time to reach that decision, even if they are uncomfortable with the idea. "I think it's up to the individual researcher to make that determination," Caplan adds.

As for Nichols, his experience has taught him that — even though he believes individuals who take drugs should be held responsible for the consequences themselves — not everything he works on should be published. Once, while working with a substance similar to MDMA, Nichols became convinced the substance was quite toxic, and knowing that dodgy characters were scanning the literature for his work, he decided not to continue his efforts in that particular vein. "The information that we got would fill in a tiny gap in [the science] and I didn't think that bit of information was worth the potential negative consequences," he says. "I made a conscious effort not to work on it."

GenomeWeb Poll

Should researchers be required to ensure that their work is not used by others for potentially harmful or illegal purposes?

11% Yes. If the results are potentially harmful, they shouldn't end up in
the wrong hands.
35% Maybe. It's hard to know how people will use research once it's
53% No. Researchers have enough administrative burdens, and adding another could stifle productivity.

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