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Is ecstasy ‘being developed to treat blood cancers’? Not quite…

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

19 August 2011

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Ecstasy pills

These won't be used as a cancer treatment

Here are a few thoughts on this morning’s headlines about ecstasy and cancer.

(In case you missed them, they’re based on research from Birmingham, published in the New Investigational Drugs journal, in which researchers report that they’ve ‘redesigned’ the molecular structure of ecstasy to make it more effective at killing lab-grown blood cancer cells).

Many of the media reports over-state the maturity of this research

This is really exploratory stuff, and a long way from being a treatment. The researchers were following up on earlier experiments, published in 2005 – in which they noticed MDMA (the chemical in ecstasy) had a pronounced killing effect on lab grown cancer cells – particularly blood cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma.

But a key stumbling block was the dose they had to use to see the effect – a dose that as the BBC reported at the time, was ‘so high it would kill a patient’.

Today’s news is the result of their attempts to chemically modify MDMA to increase its cancer-killing potential, whilst trying to avoid it acting on the brain and other systems. In other words, to stop it being ‘ecstasy’.

No population-level studies

As far as we’re aware, there are no population studies that show a drop in leukaemia or lymphoma rates in people who are long-term ecstasy users.

This would seem to tie in with the fact that the dose users take is too low to have an effect, but also speaks to the scarcity of such studies. (The nearest thing we could find was a 1997 study in the British Journal of Cancer – this looked at recreational drug use and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and found that cocaine increased the risk).

A modified chemical isn’t that chemical any more

The history of drug development is littered with examples of naturally occurring compounds being turned into something different to make them into more effective drugs.

Platinum, for example, is relatively poor at killing cancer – but when you combine it with other molecules to make drugs like cisplatin or carboplatin, you’re in business. But then you’re talking about carboplatin, not platinum per se.

If – and this is a big if – a chemical derived from MDMA ever makes it into patient trials, it almost certainly won’t affect people like ecstasy does. So the fact that its molecular great-great-grandfather was once an illegal drug is, essentially, a curiosity more than anything else (albeit a headline-writer’s dream).

This tells us interesting things about blood cancer cells

More interesting than the tenuous link to 80s rave culture – to us at least – is the way the new chemical worked. It seemed to influence the way leukaemia cells’ membranes held together – a new finding that gives blood cancer researchers a new lead in the search for ways to tackle the disease.

Recurring theme

Researchers around the world are (metaphorically) looking under every possible stone in the search for cancer drugs. In the years we’ve been writing this blog, we’ve discussed everything from broccoli to red wine as possible sources of cancer drugs (and how the media often over-eggs these ideas). An extract of curry powder has yielded treatment clues. And several existing cancer drugs come from surprising sources – taxanes from yew trees, for instance, and eribulin from the humble sea sponge.

So there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the idea that a molecule like MDMA could generate ideas for new cancer treatments. But at this stage, from a patient’s point of view, they’re not much more than that – ideas.



Wasik AM et al (2011). Enhancing the anti-lymphoma potential of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘ecstasy’) through iterative chemical redesign: mechanisms and pathways to cell death. Investigational new drugs PMID: 21850491

Image via Wikimedia Commons