It's enough to make a scientist swear off coffee. Last month, six researchers at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center fell ill after swigging coffee at a lab meeting. The cause: Their drinks were laced with acrylamide, a neurotoxic chemical used in molecular biology labs. All six were treated in local hospital emergency rooms and returned to work the same day. Campus police say the amount of chemical in the coffee is too high to have been accidental and have begun a criminal investigation.
The poisoning occurred on the morning of 5 November in a conference room of the medical center's Cellular and Molecular Medicine East Building. The victims--two grad students and four staff members--experienced "light-headedness" and "blurry vision," the Center said in a statement. Tests of coffee from the meeting room revealed that it contained acrylamide, a white, water-soluble crystal used to make gels that separate proteins by electrophoresis. Acrylamide can permanently damage the nervous system, but the amount in the coffee was about one-tenth of a lethal dose, says UCSD police detective Robert Jones.
Although trace contamination might have occurred by mistake, say, when someone cleaned a coffee pot with a towel that had been used to wipe up acrylamide solution, that seems unlikely. The levels of acrylamide were far above trace amounts and "could not be explained" by an accident, says Jones.
The poisoning remains a mystery--the most recent in a string of suspected poisonings in research laboratories, many of them still unresolved. Two years ago, for example, several scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were found to have ingested the radioactive isotope P-32, and in 1994, 15 Rockefeller University researchers got sick after drinking coffee laced with sodium fluoride. About 15 years ago, several people at the San Diego biotech company Quidel Corp.--including CEO David Katz--drank coffee that had been doped with acrylamide. A chemist at Quidel was convicted of the crime.
"There will be jokes about drinking coffee, but the sad side is, it's a really vicious way of taking revenge," says UCSD immunologist Maurizio Zanetti, who, as an employee at Quidel, helped identify the poison in that case. He suggests that anxiety over funding may have prompted someone to act irrationally. The UCSD police, however, say it is too soon to draw any conclusions.