The wholesome effects of a happy life are undeniable. A lack of stress and stress related biochemical activations in the body, such as inappropriately raised adrenaline and ‘fight or flight’ responses is good for you. Also, the effects of the higher centres of the brain on the rest of the body is well known i.e. happy people tend to be healthy people. However, few would suggest that a chemical induced state of happiness would be healthy as these drugs also tend to have detrimental side-effects that outweigh the potential benefit. So why are media outlets hailing the medical use of ecstasy tablets?
Ecstasy mostly consists of a chemical called MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) in ‘street’ parlance it is called ‘E’ or ‘Mandy’ and is a type of amphetamine. It can induce euphoria, gets people ‘loved up’ and can remove feelings of anxiety. There have been previous clinical trials to investigate potential therapeutic benefits and in the past it was used in some medical settings. Following a more recent report in the journal Investigational New Drugs the suggestion is that a modified form of ecstasy may be useful in treating blood cancers such as leukaemia. It has been known for some time that ecstasy kills some forms of cancer, but the report on the modification claims a one hundred fold increase in effectiveness, at least, in the test tube. This means that it is very early days and due to the regulatory procedures for any new clinical application it would be a long time before the drug would be allowed – even if it is proved to be safe and effective.
A different research team at the University of Birmingham showed that ecstasy and antidepressants such as Prozac had the potential to stop cancers growing. However, the doses needed were so high they would have been fatal. The researchers, in collaboration with the University of Western Australia, have chemically re-designed the ‘designer’ drug ecstasy to produce variants. One variant increased cancer-fighting effectiveness 100-fold. This 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. In other words, at these levels the variant could be effective without being fatal.
So why does ecstasy just kill the cancer cells? Work is underway to establish the mechanism, but it is thought that the drug is lipophilic and is preferentially attracted to those cancer cells that higher levels of fat in their cell walls, and these seem to include a number of blood cancer types.