The federal government issued a warning about a legal substance because of a frightening discovery at the University of Kansas Hospital.
In recent years, synthetic drugs like K2 have flooded the market. They are not intended for human consumption, but marketed that way and all too often used that way. The drugs have caused agitation, psychosis, rapid heart rates, seizures, heart attacks and stroke.
And now KU doctors say you can add kidney failure to that list.
The hospital recently participated in a federal Centers for Disease Control case series involving 16 cases in Kansas, Oregon, Wyoming, New York and Rhode Island.
Governments have tried to crack down by passing laws banning their sales but this has led to new health hazards. Manufactures switch a chemical group or make a tweak to get around the bans.
An area man bought "Mister Happy," which is an incense. But he smoked the synthetic cannaboid.
He was rushed to the emergency room with back pain, but his problem was much worse.
"His kidneys had basically shut down," Dr. Stephen Thornton of the hospital's Poison Control Center explained. "And this was really unusual because he didn't have any reason that we could detect why this had happened."
And then he mentioned smoking Mister Happy, and the kidney specialists at the hospital began running a battery of tests.
"We'd really never heard of this causing renal failure before," Thornton said. "We did some testing on the samples that we drew from him and also the Mister Happy product, and discovered it had heretofore undescribed drugs in them. Drugs that really hadn't been seen in the United States yet."
Thornton did more research and discovered similar cases. But it was his case that led to the CDC issuing a nationwide warning to doctors.
He was also one of the main contributors to the CDC case study.
"Our case here was really the first one where we were able to identify this actual drug both in his blood, in his urine and in the product," Thornton said.
The kidney side effects are apparently being called by a component in the fluorine group.
The man, who was in his 20s, was angry. He wrongly thought because he could buy it over the internet that it was tested and safe to use.
Thornton said there is no safety net and you essentially become an experimental study group of one.
"When people buy them and use them (synthetic drugs), they are the guinea pigs," Thornton said. "And bad things can happen. And hopefully we can learn from those. But it's hard to predict."
The substance eventually left the man's system and his kidneys resumed normal functions. But he is lucky not to have long-term damage.
That's not the case for five people of the 16 cases studied by the CDC who each now have dialysis. Of the 16, 15 were males between 15 and 33 years old. One of the patients was a 15-year-old girl.
"These are substances that have never been tested in humans. We don't know how the human body is going to react to these things so it's kind of the ultimate buyer beware," Thornton said.
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