Scientists are first to study toxic effects of BZP

Research group: l - r: Dr Lata Gautam, Miss Petra Chovancova, Prof Mike Cole, Dr Beverley Vaughan & Miss Mya Fekry

Research group: l - r: Dr Lata Gautam, Miss Petra Chovancova, Prof Mike Cole, Dr Beverley Vaughan & Miss Mya Fekry

Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University have revealed for the first time the serious long-term health risks associated with Benzylpiperazine (BZP), dubbed the "new ecstasy".

BZP was a popular legal high before it was reclassified as a controlled substance in December 2009.

According to Dean Ames, the Forensic Science Service's drugs intelligence adviser, the designer drug has replaced MDMA as the main ingredient in ecstasy tablets.

Dean Ames said:

"It's a rare drug now, MDMA. There are hundreds of thousands of tablets in circulation in the UK that look like ecstasy tablets, but which actually contain piperazines (a class of compounds that includes BZP).

The tablets are still being sold as ecstasy and because they have an effect, young people may think they are taking ecstasy."

Anglia Ruskin's research, led by Professor Mike Cole and Dr Beverley Vaughan, is the first of its kind to examine the health implications of taking piperazines and will help to educate medical staff as to the most serious symptoms associated with their ingestion, namely liver and kidney damage.

"The market for and abuse of clandestinely synthesised designer drugs has increased significantly over the last decade and this has been accompanied by an increase in the number of reports of death and serious illnesses related to the ingestion of these substances," said Professor Cole, whose preliminary findings were presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences' annual conference.

"Before our research there had been no systematic study of the toxicity of these drugs and this is needed if we are to treat drug users effectively and inform people of the potential hazards associated with taking them."

The data produced by Professor Cole and Dr Vaughan provides clear evidence of the cellular cytotoxicity of BZP and its synthetic by-products at levels likely to occur following their ingestion. It also indicates that in general the liver, the site of detoxification for the body, is most sensitive to the actions of these drugs.

"Cells derived from the liver and kidney were exposed to BZP - its starting materials and its impurities - at concentrations which reflected a dose for a user of these drugs. The cells were examined to determine whether significant changes had occurred, including apoptosis (cell suicide) and necrosis (cell murder)," explained Professor Cole.

"It was found that BZP itself is toxic to the kidney whilst the starting material, piperazine hexahydrate, showed toxicity in only the liver. In general the study showed that water soluble drugs, impurities and mixtures were toxic to liver cells, whilst compounds and mixtures which are fat soluble are toxic to the kidney.

"Mixtures of drugs and impurities, synthesised to reflect street samples, produced a variety of toxic effects depending upon the composition of the mixture - but all were significantly toxic.

"The work is important because it begins to provide an explanation of why people who have taken these drugs exhibit the symptoms that they do in A&E rooms.

"It also shows that different batches of drugs will have different effects because of the different proportions of drug and impurity in the material, and that users are exposed to toxic mixtures of drugs for which both the short and longer-term effects will not be known and cannot easily be predicted."

Addictions expert Sarah Graham, who is a spokesperson for the Government drugs helpline FRANK, said: "BZP is not safe - it is an entirely synthetic party drug which mimics the effects of ecstasy and speed. It is a stimulant which can raise your blood pressure and may lead to a fit or heart attack.

"You never know what you are getting because the chemical make up continually changes and mixing the drug with alcohol can increase the risks."
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