The possibility of redesigning the illicit recreational drug ‘ecstasy' to treat blood cancers is being explored by a team of researchers from The University of Western Australia and the University of Birmingham in England.


In recent papers (published in the journals MedChemComm and Investigational New Drugs), UWA medicinal chemist Associate Professor Matthew Piggott, PhD students Michael Gandy and Katie Lewis, and colleagues show that compounds similar to ‘ecstasy' - or MDMA as it is known scientifically - kill cell-lines derived from blood cancers such as lymphoma, myeloma and leukaemia.


The MDMA analogues (compounds similar to ‘ecstasy'), have been modified to eliminate the psychoactivity seen in ‘ecstasy', as demonstrated by UWA psychopharmacologist Professor Mathew Martin-Iverson and his PhD student Zak Millar. At the same time, their potency against cancer cells has been boosted 100-fold.


In 2005, Professor John Gordon and his team from the University of Birmingham, published a paper describing the ability of MDMA to kill lymphoma cells.  At about the same time, Associate Professor Piggott and his group were modifying MDMA for Parkinson's disease drug discovery.  The researchers from across the globe teamed up to tackle blood cancers.


Work on the mode of action of these compounds, and efforts to discover even more potent drug candidates, is ongoing.