Modified Ecstasy used in blood cancer study

Behind the Headlines

Friday August 19 2011

MDMA/ecstasy was not examined in its recreational drug form

“Ecstasy could be used to cure cancer after scientists modified the drug to increase its tumour-killing properties,” reported The Daily Telegraph. It said that the drug was modified to increase its tumour-killing properties and that it could be used in the treatment of blood cancers – leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

This is early research into the use of a modified form of MDMA (ecstasy). Researchers added different molecular groups to MDMA to find new, related molecules that were more effective against certain types of B-cell lymphoma cells in the laboratory.

The research did not examine ecstasy (MDMA) in its recreational drug form, nor did it test the effects of these new chemicals on any animals or humans. Though this study raises possibilities, much further research is needed, including testing in animals, before it is known whether a modified form of MDMA could treat cancer in humans. As highlighted by Dr Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK in The Telegraph, “MDMA is a dangerous drug, the researchers need also to find out if they can create safe versions to treat people with the disease”.

Ecstasy, or MDMA, remains an illegal and dangerous drug that can have highly unpredictable and occasionally fatal effects.


Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Birmingham and The University of Western Australia. The research received funding from various sources, including Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, UK, and the Ada Bartholomew Medical Research Trust.

The study was published in the (peer-reviewed) journal Investigational New Drugs.

In general, the news stories present balanced views of this research, indicating that the new chemicals being tested may have potential, but that potential treatments are some way off. However, it is not clear from the top lines of most reports that the study tested modified forms of MDMA (ecstasy) in the laboratory, not the drug in its recreational form. The Express presents the most misleading headline, describing it as the ‘clubbers’ drug’, with an accompanying picture that might suggest someone taking the recreational drug.


What kind of research was this?

This was laboratory research investigating the effect on cancer cells of modified forms of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine – otherwise known as MDMA or ecstasy.

The researchers say that MDMA has been demonstrated to have some effectiveness at destroying lymphoma cells (cancer of the lymph system) in the laboratory. However, the drug has not yet been tested for this purpose in live animal models as there has been no success in making a form of the drug that lacks the adverse effects of MDMA on the brain and nervous system.

In this research, modified MDMA was created by adding different molecular groups to the drug. The researchers then tested how effective the new chemicals (called ‘analogues’ of MDMA) were against a certain rare type of B cell lymphoma cell (Burkitt’s lymphoma – an aggressive and rapidly growing lymphoma of B cells, which are so called because they mature in the bone marrow).


What did the research involve?

The researchers initially modified MDMA by adding different molecular groups (α-subunits). They tested the effectiveness of the different analogues against Burkitt’s lymphoma, and then against other B-cell lymphomas in the laboratory. The treated cells were stained with iodide, which is unable to pass through cell membranes, and another chemical that indicates activation of a particular enzyme. With the use of these techniques, the researchers were able to observe the processes of cell death.


What were the basic results?

After initial tests in which they added different chemical molecular subgroups, the researchers found that adding a particular molecular group (called a phenyl group) increased by 10-fold MDMA’s effectiveness against the Burkitt’s lymphoma cells. When other related molecular groups were added, some of the modified compounds were found to be 100-fold more effective than the original MDMA compound. When the researchers tested the compounds against other B-cell tumour lines, they found that the new compounds could also kill cells from other B-cell lymphomas besides Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Like most Burkitt’s lymphoma cells, the cells that were initially tested did not express the BCL-2 gene (meaning that this gene was not active within these cells). This is important, because BCL-2 is expressed in a number of tumours, and the protein that it codes for is believed to protect cancer cells against cell death and help them to resist cancer treatments. However, the researchers found that when they tested B-lymphoma cells that did express this gene, the cells still only had minimal protection against the action of the MDMA analogues.

The analogues seemed to be attracted to the fatty components in the lymphoma cells. It was believed that this was an important part of how the MDMA analogues were killing the cells.


How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that this study demonstrated that MDMA analogues can have cancer-killing properties against lymphoma cell types, including those that express a high level of BCL-2, which is often a barrier to effective cancer drug performance.



This is early stage research into identifying modified forms of MDMA that have improved efficacy against cancer cells. The researchers added different molecular groups to see how effective these new MDMA-like chemicals (called MDMA 'analogues') were at killing a type of B-cell lymphoma cell in the laboratory.

The researchers did not examine MDMA/ecstasy in its recreational drug form, nor did they examine the effects of these new chemicals against cancers in any animals or humans. At this stage, the researchers have only investigated the effect of directly adding the test chemicals to cells and observing them under laboratory conditions to see if they were able to kill the cells.

It is also important to note that this study has only tested MDMA analogues against Burkitt’s lymphoma and other B-cell lymphoma cell lines. These are all types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. As such, it is too early to know whether MDMA analogues are effective against blood cancers in general: the research has not investigated all types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or any type of leukaemia or myeloma.

Much further research is needed before it is known if a modified form of the drug that is safe and effective can be developed. This would need to involve initial testing in an animal model before being considered for human testing.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Clubbers' drug ecstasy is set to treat cancer. Daily Express, August 19 2011

Ecstasy 'could be used in cancer treatment'. The Daily Telegraph, August 19 2011

Ecstasy to be used in war on cancer. Daily Mirror, August 19 2011

Dance drug ecstasy 'may help to fight cancers of the blood'. Daily Mail, August 19 2011

Modified ecstasy 'attacks blood cancers'. BBC News, August 19 2011

Form of Ecstasy may help to combat cancer. The Independent, August 19 2011

Links to the science

Wasik AM, Gandy MN, McIldowie M et al. Enhancing the anti-lymphoma potential of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy) through iterative chemical redesign: mechanisms and pathways to cell death. Investigational New Drugs 2011


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 3 ratings

All ratings

2  ratings
0  ratings
0  ratings
0  ratings
1  ratings

Add your rating