Researchers from Birmingham University have designed a drug similar to the illicit drug Ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) that could be used to treat leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma after making it 100 times more effective at suppressing growth.
Ecstasy was already known to be effective against more than half of white blood cell cancers, but previously the large dose required to treat a tumor would also have killed the patient. In 2006, a research team at the University of Birmingham showed that ecstasy and anti-depressants such as Prozac had the potential to stop cancers growing.
The study published in the Investigational New Drugs journal, the scientists said the new drug could be used by doctors to treat cancer if it can be produced in a safe form. Lead author Professor John Gordon said, “This is an exciting next step towards using a modified form of MDMA to help people suffering from blood cancer. 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.”
Dr Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK said, “As MDMA is a dangerous drug, the researchers need also to find out if they can create safe versions to treat people with the disease. Although survival rates for leukemia have improved over the past thirty years new approaches to treatment are still needed to tackle this disease even more effectively.”
The researchers, in collaboration with the University of Western Australia, have chemically re-engineered ecstasy by taking some atoms away and putting new ones in their place. One variant increased cancer-fighting effectiveness 100-fold. It means that if 100g of un-modified ecstasy was needed to get the desired effect, only 1g of the modified ecstasy would be needed to have the same effect. Scientists say this also reduced the toxic effect on the brain.
Professor John Gordon said, “Against the cancers, particularly the leukemia, the lymphoma and the myeloma, where we've tested these new compounds we can wipe out 100% of the cancer cells in some cases. We would really need to pinpoint which are the most sensitive cases, but it has the potential to wipe out all the cancer cells in those examples. This is in the test tube, it could be different in the patient, but for now it's quite exciting.”
It is believed that the drug is attracted to the fat in the membranes of the cancerous cells. Researchers think it makes the cells “a bit more soapy”, which can break down the membrane and kill the cell. They said cancerous cells were more susceptible than normal, healthy ones. However, doctors are not going to start prescribing modified ecstasy to cancer patients in the near future. The research has been demonstrated only in samples in a test tube. Animals studies and clinical trials would be needed before prescribing a drug could be considered.
First, however, chemists in the UK and Australia are going to try to tweak the modified ecstasy even further as they think it can be made even more potent. Dr David Grant, scientific director of the charity Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, 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.”