RTI denies it made mistake that torpedoed results of a $1.3M study
By Leo John
Triangle Business Journal

Nov. 10 RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK - RTI International denies it is to blame for an error that led researchers at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center to retract the results of what had been hailed as breakthrough research.

Officials at Johns Hopkins in September were quoted as saying that RTI, which is headed by Victoria Haynes, is responsible for mislabeling a supply of the recreational drug ecstasy, or MDMA, that it supplied to the Baltimore hospital. Researchers say they discovered the drug actually was methamphetamine, commonly known as "speed," which is similar to but distinct from ecstasy. Johns Hopkins representatives did not return several phone messages left by Triangle Business Journal.

The discovery of the drug mix-up was made a year after Johns Hopkins in September 2002 reported the results of a $1.3 million federally funded study that had concluded that ecstasy causes serious brain damage in monkeys and baboons. The study results were reported in the magazine Science.

A retraction of the study results, also published in Science, stated that "The toxic effects (the researchers) ascribed to ecstasy were caused by a sister drug, methamphetamine."

As for how the mistake happened, the article said, "Both drugs were delivered to the lab on the same day and in identical bottles but the labels were switched." The mistake had occurred because the vials, supplied by RTI International, had been mislabeled, said Dr. George A. Ricaurte, an associate professor of neurology and the lead researcher.

After reviewing its records of the transaction, a spokesman for RTI says the institute discovered "no evidence of labeling error" in its supply of ecstasy to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "As a result of Dr. Ricaurte's allegation, we conducted an analysis of records, which reveals no evidence of labeling error on our part," RTI International spokesman Reid Maness said in a written statement.

"We are disappointed that Dr. Ricaurte chose to blame RTI for the circumstances that led him to retract his study. We reject the certainty with which blame is exclusively placed on RTI," Maness' statement said.

Ecstasy, which was discovered in the early 1900s, originally was prescribed to help people lose weight. Research in 1992 discovered that the drug heightens certain sensory responses, including an intensification of the pleasure one enjoys while listening to music. Such effects have led to ecstasy's current widespread use as a "party drug," especially in bars.

Because of its growing popularity among young adults, researchers have sought to determine any negative side effects that ecstasy might have on those who use the drug. The September 2002 study results by Johns Hopkins were considered a breakthrough in doing that. In reporting the findings, Ricaurte wrote in Science, "The most troubling implication of our findings is that young adults using ecstasy may be increasing their risk for developing parkinsonism, a condition similar to Parkinson's disease, as they get older."

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As far as that agency is concerned, how the drugs became mixed up remains a mystery. Beverly Jackson, a spokeswoman for the agency, says there is no dispute that RTI International supplied the drug. Finding out how the error occurred is a "continuing work," she says.

RTI International's Maness says supplying drugs for research studies is a small part of the institute's business. "The only scientists to whom we supply drug materials are those who have grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct research on the health impacts of drug abuse," he says. "No one else can access these materials, and each order has to be validated by NIDA before it is sent to us."

Copyright 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.