Ecstasy is being developed as a potential cancer treatment, it has been revealed.
Modified forms of the dance club drug may be effective against blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma, early research suggests.
Six years ago scientists found that cancers affecting white blood cells appeared to respond to certain "psychotropic" drugs. These included weight loss pills, Prozac-type antidepressants, and amphetamine derivatives such as MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy.
The same team at the University of Birmingham has now revealed that specially modified forms of ecstasy boosted the drug's ability to destroy cancerous cells 100 times. Further work could lead to MDMA-derivatives being used in patient trials.
Professor John Gordon, from the university's School of Immunology and Infection, 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 improvements in treatments in years to come."
Adapting ecstasy for use as a cancer drug initially presented serious problems. Research showed that the dose of MDMA needed to treat a tumour would prove fatal to the patient. To overcome this obstacle, the scientists set about isolating the drug's cancer-killing properties.
The new findings are published in the journal Investigational New Drugs.
Prof Gordon said the researchers are looking at ways to help MDMA molecules penetrate cancer cell walls more easily. He added: "We can theoretically make even more potent analogues of MDMA."
Dr David Grant, scientific director of the charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, which part-funded the study, 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."