Field of Science

Warning, Dr. Smith! Warning!

An SF fan from the moment I discovered Heinlein's Have Spacesuit -Will Travel in the minuscule public library in the small (population 2500) Midwest town I grew up in, it's probably not a surprise that I would have been an avid watcher of SF on TV. When I get various 'urgent warnings' in my inbox, I often hear the Lost in Space robot's voice in my head, "Warning, Dr. Smith! Warning!"

A few days ago, this warning about the dangers of taking business cards from strangers appeared. Take one of these drug laden cards in your bare hands and soon you will be easy prey for swindlers and worse. Is such a thing possible? Can you be drugged against your will by briefly touching a drug?

In principle, yes. Unbroken skin, though a good way of keeping your insides in, is not an absolute barrier to molecules entering the body. Some molecules — such as DMSO — are better at getting in than others.

When I teach mathematical modeling, one topic we look at is ways to model diffusion. An application that many of my students find interesting are passive drug delivery systems that capitalize on diffusion. In other words - patches. To me this warning sounds like a folkloric riff on drug patches. In fact, delivery through a patch is a pretty complex system, it's not just a matter of soaking the equivalent of a gauze pad in a drug and taping it to your arm.

The drug cocktail purported to be on the business cards is burundanga - a mixture of two plant alkaloids, atropine and scopolamine. Both can be administered through the skin, when I had surgery a couple of years ago, the anesthesiologist use a scopolamine patch to manage my post-op nausea. But he didn't hand me a "don't throw up" card to hang onto for a few minutes in pre-op - that patch he applied behind my ear was a marvel of pharmaceutical engineering!

Burundanga has been used criminally but by slipping into a victim's food or drink. Incidental contact with atropine or scopolamine won't incapacitate you — though the prescribing information for the scopolamine patch points out that you should avoid touching the patch and then your eyes - resulting in dilated pupils and blurry vision.

Scopolamine was used as an amnesia inducing agent during labor and delivery in the 60's. I suspect Betty Draper's halucinations during labor and delivery on Mad Men (The Fog, Season 3, episode 5).

Image is of belladona, from which atropine and scopolamine can be extracted.