Sunday, March 18, 2012

“Bath Salts” and Ecstasy Implicated in Kidney Injuries

“A potentially life-threatening situation.”

Earlier this month, state officials became alarmed by a cluster of puzzling health problems that had suddenly popped up in Casper, Wyoming, population 55,000. Three young people had been hospitalized with kidney injuries, and dozens of others were allegedly suffering from vomiting and back pain after smoking or snorting an herbal product sold as “blueberry spice.” The Poison Review reported that the outbreak was presently under investigation by state medical officials.  “At this point we are viewing use of this drug as a potentially life-threatening situation,” said Tracy Murphy, Wyoming state epidemiologist.

It is beginning to look like acute kidney injury from the newer synthetic drugs may be a genuine threat. And if that wasn’t bad enough, continuing research has implicated MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, as another potential source of kidney damage. Recreational druggies, forewarned is forearmed.

Bath salts first. In the Wyoming case, while the drug in question may have been one of the synthetic marijuana products marketed as Spice, it’s entirely possible that the drug in question was actually one or more of the new synthetic stimulants called bath salts. (Quality control and truth in packaging are not part of this industry). The American Journal of Kidney Diseases recently published a report titled “Recurrent Acute Kidney Injury Following Bath Salts Intoxication.” It features a case history that Yale researchers believe to be “the first report of recurrent acute kidney injury associated with repeated bath salts intoxication.”  The most common causes for emergency room admissions due to bath salts—primarily the drugs MDPV and mephedrone—are agitation, hallucinations, and tachycardia, the authors report. But the case report of a 26-year old man showed recurrent kidney injury after using bath salts. The authors speculate that the damage resulted from “severe renal vasospasm induced by these vasoactive substances.” (A vasoactive substance can constrict or dilate blood vessels.)

A possible secondary mechanism of action for kidney damage among bath salt users is rhabdomyolysis—a breakdown of muscle fibers that releases muscle fiber contents into the bloodstream, causing severe kidney damage. Heavy alcohol and drug use, especially cocaine, are also known risk factors for this condition. The complicating factor here is that rhabdomyolysis has also been described in cases of MDMA intoxication, and here we arrived at the second part of the story.

In 2008, the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology published “The Agony of Ecstasy: MDMA and the Kidney.” In this study, Garland A. Campbell and Mitchell H. Rosner of the University of Virginia Department of Medicine found that “Ecstasy has been associated with acute kidney injury that is most commonly secondary to nontraumatic rhabdomyolysis but also has been reported in the setting of drug-induced liver failure and drug-induced vasculitis.”

Chemically, MDMA is another amphetamine spinoff, like mephedrone and other bath salts. Many people take this club drug regularly without apparent harm, whereas others seem to be acutely sensitive and can experience serious toxicity, possibly due to genetic variance in the breakdown enzyme CYP2D6. The authors trace the first case report of acute kidney injury due to Ecstasy back to 1992, but “because most of these data are accrued from case reports, the absolute incidence of this complication cannot be determined.” 

 Campbell and Rosner believe that nontraumatic rhabdomyolysis is a likely culprit in many cases, and speculate that the condition is “greatly compounded by the ambient temperature, which in crowded rave parties is usually elevated.” If a physician suspects rhabdomyolysis in an Ecstasy user, “aggressive cooling measures should be undertaken to lower the patient’s core temperature to levels that will lessen further muscle and end-organ injury.” This complication can have far-reaching effects: The authors note the case history of “transplant graft loss of both kidneys obtained from a donor with a history of recent Ecstasy use.”

In addition, there may be undocumented risks to the liver as well. An earlier study by Andreu et. al. claims that “up to 31% of all drug toxicity-related acute hepatic failure is due to MDMA… Patients with severe acute hepatic failure secondary to ecstasy use often survive with supportive care and have successfully undergone liver transplantation.” 

But the picture is far from clear: “Unfortunately, no case reports of acute kidney injury secondary to ecstasy have had renal biopsies performed to allow for further elucidation…” And attributing firm causation is difficult, due to the fact that MDMA users often use other drugs in combination, some of which, like cocaine, can cause kidney problem all by themselves.

A study by Harold Kalant of the University of Toronto’s Addiction Research Foundation, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, proposed that “dantrolene, which is a drug used to stop the intense muscle contractures in malignant hyperthermia, should also be useful in the hyperthermic type of MDMA toxicity. Numerous cases have now been treated in this way, some with rapid and dramatic results even when the clinical picture suggested the likelihood of a fatal outcome.”

Adebamiro, A., and Perazella, M. (2012). Recurrent Acute Kidney Injury Following Bath Salts Intoxication American Journal of Kidney Diseases, 59 (2), 273-275 DOI: 10.1053/j.ajkd.2011.10.012

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