Six years ago, researchers at the University of Birmingham discovered that more than half of the cancers of white blood cells they looked at responded in the test tube to the growth-suppressing properties of psychotropic drugs, including amphetamine derivatives such as ecstasy and weight-loss pills, and antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac). Building on this previous work, the researchers have now discovered a modified form of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, they claim has 100 times more cancer-busting properties than the designer drug itself.

Although the scientists discovered the cancer-fighting properties of MDMA six years ago, the team realized that producing a usable clinical compound would present serious problems; largely because the dose of MDMA required to treat a cancerous tumor would also kill the patient. They therefore set about breaking down the actions of the drug to isolate its cancer-killing properties from its general toxicity.

Working in collaboration with researchers from Western Australia who produced the new compounds for them, the University of Birmingham scientists found specially modified forms of ecstasy that had their ability to attack and destroy cancerous cells boosted by a factor of 100. More importantly, they believe they now understand the mechanism behind this.

"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," explains Professor John Gordon, from the University of Birmingham's School of Immunology and Infection. "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."

Although the researchers don't want to give people false hope, they believe their research has the potential to in the future provide an improvement in cancer treatments for cancers like lymphoma, many types of which remain hard to treat. The team is now looking to develop pre-clinical studies.

The University of Birmingham team's research results were published on August 18 in the journal Investigational New Drugs.