INSIDE STORY: The Drug That May Have Killed Michael Jackson

08/02/2009 at 11:00 AM EDT

INSIDE STORY: The Drug That May Have Killed Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Toru Hanai/Reuters/Landov
It's a sedative called Diprivan, and police searching Michael Jackson's Holmby Hills mansion after his June 25 death found it – along with IV stands and oxygen cylinders – in the home.

Official toxicology results have yet to be released, but preliminary results of Jackson's autopsy showed the anesthetic propofol – another name for Diprivan – may have played a part in his death.

And authorities specifically were searching for evidence of propofol at the home of Jackson's personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, who investigators reportedly believe gave the singer the drug the night before he died. (Murray claims he did not give Jackson any drugs that "should have" led to his death).

Refreshed

If Jackson was indeed taking propofol to help him sleep, as some reports indicate, it would have been a serious misuse of the drug. Common as an anesthetic for colonoscopies and plastic surgery, propofol is given intravenously and works quickly and safely – it slips patients into a deep sleep as soon as the IV is put in, but allows them to wake up easily once the IV is removed.

The powerful anesthetic is considered a clean drug, meaning that it clears the system more quickly than other anesthetics such as sodium pentothal, which tends to circulate into the blood stream once the infusion is stopped, prolonging the patient's drowsiness.

Propofol "is short-acting: quick to sleep and quick to wake-up. It's a wonderful, wonderful drug," says Dr. Barry L. Friedberg, an associate professor of anesthesia at UC Irvine. "People feel refreshed afterward. They don't feel like they've just had surgery."

Proper Monitoring

But there's a huge catch: Propofol "has never been intended for home use," says Friedberg. "It's extremely safe, so long as you monitor it." Friedberg recommends that a brain monitor be attached to any patient being given the drug, and that an anesthesiologist be present throughout the procedure to monitor brain function.

"A patient's breathing patterns must be monitored to ensure the dose will not put them in respiratory distress," says Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "If you're not being properly monitored, it can be quite dangerous."

In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration is currently evaluating propofol to determine whether or not it should be considered a controlled substance and have its use regulated by the government.

Rarely Abused

Is it possible propofol could become the next OxyContin? "There have been several reports" of its abuse," says Volkow. "It's not that easy to become addicted to it because you have to know how to inject yourself," says Volkow. "It's not a frequently abused drug because it's tough to administer. A medical student who knows how to administer might end up abusing it."

A police source reportedly told the Associated Press that Jackson arranged to have himself hooked up to a propofol drip so he could fall asleep, then had it disconnected in the morning. But propofol is a temporary sedative, not a sleep-aid, and using it all night long, without being properly monitored, is "just begging for something bad to happen," says Dr. Friedberg.

"Had Michael Jackson had a brain monitor and someone there who knew what they were doing, he'd probably still be alive," he says.


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