Altered forms of MDMA (Ecstasy) which are 100 times better at destroying cancer cells could be used to effectively treat patients with leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, according to an article in Investigational New Drugs. The authors, from the University of Birmingham, UK, explained that while Ecstasy is already known to have anti-cancer qualities, these modified forms of the drug are 100 times more powerful.

Ecstasy is the colloquial term for MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a drug that produces distinctive emotional and social effects (an entactogenic drug). It is a drug of the phenethylamine and amphetamine class. Ecstasy can reduce anxiety and induce euphoria and a sense of intimacy with others. In the majority of countries, the possession, manufacture and sale of MDMA is criminalized, except for some limited scientific or medical research purposes.

Scientists at the same research department at the University of Birmingham had already discovered that certain psychotropic drugs, such as Ecstasy, some antidepressants and weight-loss pills were effective in suppressing the development of white blood cancer cells.

The problem was that in order for those drugs to have any significant effect on cancer patients, the dosage would have to be so high that it would kill them. Hence, the researchers have spent the last six years trying to separate and isolate their cancer-busting properties so that patients could be spared being given the toxic ingredients. They worked with scientists from the University of Western Australia.

The Australian scientists created the new, modified compounds.

The British researchers found that these modified compounds were 100 times more powerful at combating cancer cells than Ecstasy. They say they also now understand the mechanism behind them.

Professor John Gordon, lead author, said:

“Together, we were looking at structures of compounds that were more effective. They started to look more lipophilic, that is, they were attracted to the lipids that make up cell walls. This would make them more ‘soapy’ so they would end up getting into the cancer cells more easily and possibly even start dissolving them.

By knowing this we can theoretically make even more potent analogues of MDMA and eventually reach a point where we will have in our drug cabinet the most potent form we could.”

This is an enormous step forward in their quest for an effective treatment for those with some forms of blood cancer, Professor Gordon added.

The modified forms of MDMA have not been tested on animals yet, because of the toxic effects they have on the brain and nervous system. In this study, the scientists added various molecular groups to the drug and then tested the MDMA analogues against B cell lymphoma cells (Burkitt’s lymphoma), and then against other B-cell lymphomas. They were able to observe how the compounds destroyed the cancer cells. Initially, their compounds were found to be 10 times as effective as MDMA. After adding other related compounds the effectiveness rose to 100 times more powerful than Ecstasy.

Gordon added:

“While we would not wish to give people false hope, the results of this research hold the potential for improvement in treatments in years to come.”

The scientists plan to progress to pre-clinical studies soon.

Dr. David Grant, Scientific Director of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, a UK charity that helped fund this study, said:

“The prospect of being able to target blood cancer with a drug derived from Ecstasy is a genuinely exciting proposition. Many types of lymphoma remain hard to treat and non-toxic drugs which are both effective and have few side effects are desperately needed. Further work is required but this research is a significant step forward in developing a potential new cancer drug.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist