Research News

Unlocking LSD's Medical Properties

By Bob Seay   |   Thursday, September 29, 2011
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Sept. 30, 2011

BOSTON — Remember LSD, that infamous mind-expanding drug of the 1960s? Some young researchers at Harvard Medical School have cracked open the door to the LSD vault, which had pretty much been locked for more than 40 years.

Jake Wintermute is one of those researchers. He's a metabolic engineer researching pathways to new drugs from those long blacklisted compounds, LSD and especially lysergic acid. "I recently finished my Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School in the department of systems biology. I'm a metabolic engineer and what we do is genetically modify micro-organisms to try to get them to produce molecules, compounds, that are either interesting or valuable," Wintermute explained.

Tabs of street-grade LSD. (via Greater Boston)

LSD turns out to be both interesting and valuable. But LSD and its close cousin lysergic acid have been under lock and key for decades. They're controlled substances, strictly regulated by both federal and state laws.

"There's real agents in suits with guns and when we get it, we have to sign it out, and there is a two-key mechanism to open the cabinet that has the lysergic acid. They don't mess around," Wintermute said.

Those old enough to remember the 1960s may know why those drugs ended up behind bars.

Here is a quote from Dr. Timothy Leary, in a 1967 debate about LSD from the WGBH archives:

"Now the message I have is an old one. It's the simplest and most classic message ever passed on in the world's history. It's those six words: 'Drop out, turn on, then come back and tune it in," Leary said.

Before Leary, researchers in the 1950s were exploring the medical potential of LSD as a possible cure for everything from alcoholism to anxiety and depression.

Leary saw it as a way to reach a deeper level of thinking and inspiration. He became the messiah of LSD. He wanted to turn on the whole world — and on that night in 1967, students packed into Kresge Auditorium at MIT.

Timothy Leary in 1967, a former Harvard psychology professor and proponent of LSD. (via WGBH Open Vault)

"If you take science seriously, and you take the history of science seriously, you'll realize that every great scientist wasn't in it for the commercial pay-off. He was in it to find out what it's all about, what's the nature of energy, what are the many levels of energy, what are the levels of consciousness, how can we map them out and how can we use them," Leary argued.

"And, as he got to know more and more, and to penetrate deeper and deeper into the mysteries of energy around us, he began to...flip out. He began to flip out. Look at Einstein: Einstein did it without LSD," Leary said.

Leary's opponent in the debate was MIT professor Jerome Lettvin. He warned against the loss of judgment that came with LSD, and the risk of "return trips," the repeated episodes that sometimes followed a single dose of LSD.

"Suddenly the colors whirl around, suddenly smells have color, suddenly colors have sounds, and then you're back in the normal world. And what does this smell like clinically, Tim? What does this smell like to you? As a clinician, what is this? If you saw a patient who complained of this, what is it that he would have? What would you diagnose him as?" Lettvin pressed Leary.

Leary: "A visionary mystic."

Lettvin: "[Expletive]! You would diagnose him as a temporal lobe epileptic with an aura. And you know that goddam well!"

Jerome Lettvin, an MIT professor, psychiatrist and cognitive scientist, as seen in the 1967 debate with Timothy Leary about LSD. (via WGBH Open Vault)

Lettvin's sobering message seemed to carry the day in that long-ago debate. Leary was eventually discredited, and the drug locked up by governments around the world. Forgotten was the work of Leary's predecessors, those researchers of the '50s with their hopes for the medical potential of LSD. That's the trail that Jake Wintermute picked up.

His main interest is actually in a close chemical relative to LSD, lysergic acid. Which, he said, can be made both cheaply and quickly using new bioengineering methods.

"But more importantly, a lot of these compounds, they haven't really been developed since the 1950s," Wintermute said. "There are a lot of exciting new drugs that are being developed thanks to these new bioengineering technologies and no one yet has taken up lysergic acid as a kind of promising new precursor and I think a lot of that is because there is this kind of stigma, taboo, when you are working on something that is so illegal or so close to illegal. We presented this work recently at a conference and it was a little bit hard to get people to take it seriously because of the LSD connection."

Wintermute makes it clear that he's not talking about the acid that Timothy Leary dropped.

"These are the kind of drugs, they'll ease your Parkinson's symptoms, they'll cure your migraines, but they won't necessarily get you high, at least in the sort of clinical doses. Particularly the elder dementia treatment, is the one that gets us up in the morning. That's the big market with the aging population," Wintermute said.

It seems like LSD traditionally takes people out of reality and this research is actually about achieving the reverse. Wintermute said the actual mechanism by which the compound works is still somewhat mysterious and has something to do with it acting as a "vasodilator."

He explained the term, "It sort of opens up the blood vessels of the brain, improves the circulation in the brain; the sort of enhanced clarity that people on these drugs can sometimes benefit from comes from that."

New drugs could come from an LSD-related compound — drugs that open up the brain — but not in the manner of Timothy Leary. It's been 40 years but finally we'll have a chance, thanks to Jake Wintermute and others, to see if the hopes of those long-ago researchers of the 1950s will be fulfilled.

On a related note, it turns out that Jake Wintermute's mother was a psychiatric nurse who signed up for an LSD trial back in the early 1960s.

"She tried it. And she liked it. She had the Leary-style experience but she worked in psych wards and she saw the down-side too and she eventually did come to a more Lettvin kind of position about it," Wintermute said.

What does Wintermute's mother think of his research now?

He said, "I think she's proud. I get the occasional wink from Mom."

You can watch the whole mind-blowing Leary-Lettvin LSD debate on WGBH's open vault.

Fukushima Crisis Puts New Eyes On MIT Nuclear Reactor

By Phillip Martin   |   Monday, March 21, 2011
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Mar. 21, 2011

BOSTON — Japan’s frantic effort to cool down a damaged nuclear facility has thrust nuclear power reactors back into the public’s imagination here in the United States. That’s bringing attention to New England's Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee plants — but also to a little-noticed reactor in Massachusetts.

The MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

The MIT Nuclear Research Laboratory is a building in Cambridge with a blue-domed cylinder. It’s the second-largest of the country’s 26 university-based research reactors, but many passersby aren’t familiar with it.
“I’ve never noticed that. That’s scary,” said Patrick Jean Baptiste, as he walks home from work.
He’s one of several people walking through Kendall Square who don’t know about the reactor. But some of them aren’t the least concerned after learning what it is, like a tall, lanky man named David.
“What I’ve heard is that MIT does a pretty good job of keeping a close eye on it and using it for certain types of experiments that aren’t so threatening,” David said. 
The reactor is a tank-type reactor. Cooled by light water, it uses heavy water as a reflector. It should not be compared with the Fukushima reactor in Japan. It’s considerably smaller and has a fuel inventory about 1,000 times less than that of a commercial nuclear power plant.
The facility was the subject of an ABC News investigation in 2005. At that time, reporter Brian Ross concluded that because there are no metal detectors or searches or significant guard presence, the facility is vulnerable.
The director of the lab, Dr. David Moncton, says that should not be a safety concern.
“Workers at this facility wear badges to detect radiation levels. The fact that outside this building, there is no visible armed guard presence should not concern anyone,” Moncton said.
Moncton said he wasn’t comfortable detailing exactly how the laboratory is safe-guarded.
“It’s not a good idea to advertise the ways in which you’re secure. We don’t have armed guards but we’ve got a lot of guards close by if we need them,” Moncton said.
He said the facility is secured in other ways, too.
“Whether it’s a truck bomb or an airplane that falls out of the sky and hits our containment shell, we’ve studied all of those potential calamities, we’re pretty comfortable, and the nuclear regulators commission is comfortable that this is a safe operation and presents no risk,” Moncton said.
The MIT nuclear reactor is closely associated with Cambridge's emergency planning authorities, including fire and police departments. And the Cambridge City Council periodically looks at the safety measures surrounding the MIT reactor.

Dr. David Moncton, the director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, says he's confident the facility is secure. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

Still, Cambridge City Councilor Sam Siedel, a staunch defender of the city’s academic institutions, is concerned about the lab’s presence in a full, urban area.
“It’s obviously a wonderful opportunity from the academic perspective about things you can do in terms of learning and studying,” Siedel said. “But the idea that these things exist right in the middle of a very dense population here in Cambridge and of course, right across the river is Boston, you know, I think we really ought to look at that,” Siedel said.
Siedel says he will pursue a Council resolution directing the Cambridge City manager “to confer with the universities to get a full report on all the activities and the safety precautions and measures they have in place to deal with all types of unintended outcomes that might happen around a nuclear reactor,” Siedel said.
On the streets of Cambridge, local designer Enrita Siegal is happy to hear that. “With everything going on in Japan, I have been more concerned about nuclear power and hoping that everything is being well taken care of here,” Siegal said.
But the MIT reactor should be put into perspective, counters Christine Jesstrup, a masseuse passing through Central Square.
“I know that MIT has a reactor. I mean, they’ve got nuclear physicists over there. I think the track record on nuclear is not that bad. And I wonder if paper cuts by a thousand coal plants and oil is maybe worse,” Jesstrup said.
Among other advances, the MIT facility has a track record of helping to develop methods of fighting brain cancer with radiation. But some Cambridge residents, like Baptiste, remain skeptical.
“You can’t trust these people. They tell you you’re safe.  But you can’t believe what they’re saying. You know, anything can happen,” Baptiste said.
All parties concerned hope that a new safety audit by the Cambridge City Council might help assuage doubts and fears about the nuclear facility in their midst.

New Mass. Lawyers Feel the Squeeze

By Abbie Ruzicka   |   Monday, June 18, 2012
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June 19, 2012
BOSTON — As the number of people graduating from law school has gone up in recent years, the amount of available jobs in the legal field has gone down due to outsourcing and technology. A recent study by the Massachusetts Bar Association revealed possible ways to improve job prospects for new lawyers — many of whom have taken on six-figure debt and are graduating with little experience in the legal field.  
Eric Parker, a Boston lawyer who worked on the study, said more law schools need to have clinical programs that introduce practical skills to students so they will be more qualified when they leave.   
"You can come out of law school having passed the Bar and go right to a jury  trial and try a case having never been in a courtroom in your life. It sounds crazy but it's absolutely true," he said. "Imagine just for a moment being on a gurney in an operating room and your surgeon walks in and says, 'So, this is the operating room. Yeah, there's the anesthesia machine just like on "Grey's Anatomy." It all looks so real.'"
In addition to having law students get hands-on experience before graduating from law school, the task force that conducted the study recommended that law schools admit fewer students, make the Bar exam more difficult to pass and encourage new lawyers to take on pro bono and community work to build experience.
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Is the Housing Recovery Finally Here?

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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June 15, 2012

BOSTON — A new report from Harvard University concludes that the long-struggling U.S. housing market has finally hit bottom. But it's still a long way back to the surface, even in Massachusetts, which has fared better than much of the country.
Chris Herbert of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies said the report indicates the housing crisis may be at an end.
He acknowledged that experts have predicted recovery before — only to see the market fall back down.
"But this time is different," he said. "It's different because we’re seeing fundamentals improve in both demand, in terms of steady but moderate upticks in terms of sales, and in supply side, in that we’re seeing home inventories down to levels that are more normal in a market."
Nevertheless, Northeastern economist Barry Bluestone, who prepares annual housing report cards for the Greater Boston area, said it could still take many years for Massachusetts prices to return to their peak 6 years ago:
"A few years ago we did an analysis and we thought we would be back around 2014, 2015. But indeed the depressed prices have continued much longer than the last cycle. And now I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see those prices regaining their past levels until the end of this decade," he said.
So is now a good time to buy a house in Boston?
"This is a terrific time for people in the home buying market to buy," Bluestone said. "Housing prices are near the bottom and interest rates are lower than they’ll ever be in our lifetime."
Bluestone said homeowners who want to sell still should wait a little longer, if they can, for prices to rise a bit.

Unearthing History in Waltham

By Ibby Caputo   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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June 18, 2012

WALTHAM, Mass. — Cairo has its pyramids. Rome has its ruins. But it’s not necessary to go so far away to see history unearthed. In fact, one archeological dig is only a bus ride away from Boston.
On a warm and breezy June day, archeology students crowd around their outdoor classroom: two rectangular trenches on the historic Gore Estate in Waltham. Sweaty and covered in dirt, they methodically dig into the ground, paying attention to every bit of debris.
Archeologist Dave Landon teaches a summer course that gives UMass students hands-on experience unearthing historical remains.
“We love projects like this because it really does kind of go straight at this misconception that archeology is always far away,” Landon says.
This summer’s underground target: a greenhouse built by the seventh governor of Massachusetts, Christopher Gore. It’s part of an innovative agricultural movement that took place in New England in the early 1800s. Co-teacher Christa Beranek says the students are likely to find a variety of artifacts under layers of soil.
“Probably down there there’s greenhouse structure, there’s destruction debris from taking apart the building, lots of brick and stone and mortar and remnants of things from the greenhouse, lots and lots of glass, planting pots, nails,” she says.
Technology provides clues
In the month before the class started, Landon and his team spent days mapping out the area using electromagnetic radiation. It’s an off-the-shelf technology used in an innovative way. And it spared Landon’s students from the arduous hit-or-miss process of figuring out where to dig.
Just as planes navigate by radar, sending waves out into the atmosphere, the electromagnetic detection machine sends microwaves into the earth. When they hit a rock or a patch of clay, they bounce back.
Using historical maps as a general guide, the precision of this data helps target the exact location of hidden structures. But the archeologist’s goal is to form a cohesive narrative about the past, and that can’t occur until what’s underground is unearthed.
Today’s big find
While some students dig, others sift through dirt as if looking for gold. They mostly find pieces of ceramic and glass, but every so often, something unexpected turns up. The big find so far today? The base of a flat-bottomed drinking glass, which, it seems, was used as a tool. The broken edges have been chipped in the same way a flint stone is chipped into an arrowhead.
Volunteer Phil Cook says the process of digging and sifting can be a little mind-numbing, but it is totally worth it when you find something unexpected.
“You're out here for 8 hours a day, especially in the heat,” Cook says. “Your eyes kind of widen when you see it sticking out of the ground and you really don’t know what it is at first.”
An understanding of history gives context to the dig, but some artifacts — like the broken base of the tumbler — yield more questions than answers.
“Someone was here making a tool out of broken glass,” Landon explains. “Why would there be this handmade tool here when they really had the ability to buy any tools they wanted for this greenhouse?”
Landon says a lot of times artifacts like these found in New England are associated with Native and African Americans. “So who exactly is working here and what kind of skill set are they bringing?”
The dig's next phase
The answers to the past will not come quickly. This portion of the excavation will round up at the end of June. Then the UMass team will spend a few months analyzing the artifacts before beginning the next phase of excavation at the same site in October.
“We’re going to use every bit of evidence we can get — any kind of historical evidence, or artifactual evidence, or archeological evidence — to try and understand, try and imagine the greenhouse when it was in use and people were moving in and out of it,” says Landon.
The story promises to slowly unfold. And right here in New England an archeological adventure is underway.

Demand Could Outpace Supply on the T

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Thursday, June 14, 2012
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June 14, 2012
BOSTON — A new report from a leading land-use think tank warns that by the end of the decade, Boston’s subways could grow so packed that trains would roll past waiting commuters, unable to accommodate more riders.
The study from the Urban Land Institute finds that surging T ridership and booming construction around transit stations are poised to overwhelm the MBTA, potentially limiting future development and slowing the regional economy. Stephanie Pollack, the lead author of the study and a professor at Northeastern University, said the problem for the T is money.

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About the Authors
Bob Seay Bob Seay
Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island.
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.


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