APR 17, 2015 2:47 PM PDT

Synthetic Drugs: Evidence That They Can Cause Cancer

WRITTEN BY: Ilene Schneider
Almost weekly, a new synthetic psychoactive drug comes onto the market somewhere in Europe that can be ordered legally and easily, for example as an incense blend, via the Internet. Synthetic cannabinoids are difficult to identify chemically and the possible unwanted toxic effects that can occur following their consumption have so far barely been investigated. As part of the international EU project "SPICE II Plus", which is now coming to an end, scientists from the MedUni Vienna's Institute for Cancer Research have now also found evidence that synthetic substances damage the DNA of human cells and can therefore possibly have cancer-causing effects.
Medical University of Vienna study shows dangers of synthetic drugs.
Synthetic cannabinoids, similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana), bind to cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, triggering similar neurophysiological effects. These synthetic cannabinoids are marketed in incense mixtures as "legal highs" via the Internet and are "flooding the market", as Siegfried Knasmüller from the Institute for Cancer Research at the MedUni Vienna warns.

"The substances are directly active, in other words they are not activated via enzymes that metabolise foreign substances", explains Knasmüller. "The respiratory organs and the digestive tract especially are subjected to increased concentrations of these drugs. Our investigations on human cell lines in the laboratory have shown that synthetic cannabinoids, in the high concentrations found in cells in the oral cavity or in the lungs, for example, are likely to trigger damage to the DNA that may have significant consequences for the consumers of such substances. They damage chromosomes, and this is directly associated with cancer."

Effects on consumers cannot be quantified

Synthetic cannabinoids bind very differently and some have an effect even in very small quantities. Consumers have absolutely no information about the varying levels of effect, since they are unaware of the detailed composition of synthetically manufactured drugs. Even with "known" products, the type and quantity of ingredients added change constantly. The risk of an unwanted overdose is correspondingly great. As a result, there have been repeated cases of damage to users' health or poisoning, and in some cases users have even died.

Between 2005 and 2012, the European Union's early warning system registered just under 240 new psychoactive substances that were disguised as incense blends, bath salts or plant fertiliser, and around 140 of them contained synthetic cannabinoids.

Source: Medical University of Vienna
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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