All Things Considered

National Public Radio; “All Things Considered”
February 23, 2005
Listen to the program on the NPR site.

Transcript of Interview with John Halpern MD on “All Things Considered”
John Halpern Discussess his study on ecstasy drug and cancer patients
Aired: Wednesday, February 23, 2005


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Michele Norris.


And I’m Melissa Block.

The psychedelic drug MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, is associated with young people and rave parties. Now researchers at Harvard plan to study how the drug might help advanced-stage cancer patients who suffer from anxiety related to their diagnosis. The researchers already have FDA approval. They’re waiting for final word from the Drug Enforcement Administration. John Halpern is principal investigator for the study at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. He says the research will involve 12 cancer patients who’ve been given a prognosis of less than one year to live.

Dr. JOHN HALPERN (Associate Director, Substance Abuse Research McLean Hospital, Harvard): This substance, MDMA, will be given in conjunction with psychotherapy. There will be six non-drug psychotherapy sessions. And it’s our hope that the MDMA sessions, which will be videotaped so that the patients can review what comes up during those sessions in the future–that they’ll be able to talk about things in those particular sessions that are so vexing and difficult for them in other situations.

BLOCK: So we’re not talking about pain relief. It’s not the euphoric effects of the drug, I guess. It’s more the breaking down of barriers and getting them to open up.

Dr. HALPERN: That’s correct. And we’re going to be tracking how much medications they use in the days and weeks following their treatments to see if it alters their use of medications to treat anxiety. Let’s stick with the most commonly used ones: the sedative hypnotics, the benzos. With chronic use and especially in higher doses, it causes memory problems, it causes unsteady gait, it causes oversedation. So the quality of life in those remaining days that are so precious may be reduced significantly. MDMA is not going to be given in the take-home form for patients; they can take it twice in this study, and that’s it.

BLOCK: There are drug officials from the Bush administration who are not happy about the idea. They worry that an experiment like yours would destigmatize ecstasy, maybe make young people think that it’s OK for recreational use.

Dr. HALPERN: It’s my hope that exactly the opposite will happen. MDMA deeply works on people, especially in the first few doses. And so I can imagine many people who are considering taking this drug in an illegal way thinking that they should hold off, that it does have an appropriate use, if it does, and they should save that experience for when it’s medically appropriate.

BLOCK: The experiment that you’ll be doing is funded by a non-profit group that advocates the legalization of psychedelic drugs, like ecstasy. Might that not weight the results of your study, do you think?

Dr. HALPERN: If I could get the funding from a different source, that would be fantastic, but without any pilot data, my hands are pretty tied in my options here. Maybe after some–if there is promising data, we go back and at least present to colleagues, like down at the National Cancer Institute or somewhere else at NIH, and at some point it might make sense to apply for federal support. Now people are free to go to the sponsor’s Web site and actually read the protocol, the working treatment manual, the informed consent. People are free to also question the validity of the data by following the methods that we’ll publish and attempt to duplicate it and disprove us. This should be based in science and hard fact, not fear and polemics.

BLOCK: Is part of what helps you here, do you think, the fact that these are terminal patients who have this prognosis that they have less than a year to live, so maybe the risk of side effects, long-term problems would not be as much of an issue? Dr. HALPERN: I’m somebody who is a full-time researcher at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, somebody who is devoted in his career to looking at how drugs of abuse cause harm, who ends up hearing from people repeatedly that MDMA was something that benefited them; it was something that they realized caused a lot of harm in their life later on, but it still also had some plus in it, and they were glad for the learning experience from it. That’s very interesting as a researcher. Certainly had never heard that from somebody who’s had alcohol problems or has been addicted to heroin. So hopefully we’ll be able to replace some of the fears with facts, and maybe those fears are completely warranted, in which case I still report that.

BLOCK: Dr. Halpern, thanks for talking with us today.

Dr. HALPERN: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: Dr. John Halpern is associate director of substance abuse research at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. He’ll lead the study on ecstasy and cancer patients.

Read about progress on this and other MAPS-supported studies with MDMA.

National Public Radio (NPR)’s “All Things Considered” aired an interview of John Halpern, who spoke about the MDMA/cancer anxiety study. You can hear a recording of the interview on the NPR website or you can read the transcripts of the interview