December 30, 2004
Cancer fighters study ecstasy
By Jeff Sommerfeld
AMERICAN scientists have been given the green light to undertake a limited study into whether the illegal party drug ecstasy can help terminally ill cancer patients.
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved a pilot study by Harvard research psychiatrist Dr John Halpern, who will examine whether the hallucinogen can lessen the fears of terminally ill patients, quell thoughts of suicide and make it easier for them to deal with loved ones.
However, before the study can go ahead it still needs to receive approval from Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric facility and a licence from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The study has become the second FDA-approved study using ecstasy in the past year.
South Carolina researchers are studying the effects of the drug on 20 patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ecstasy, known scientifically as MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), is a chemical cousin of methamphetamine also known as “speed”.
Researchers say ecstasy typically induces feelings of euphoria, increased energy and sexual arousal.
But it also suppresses appetite, thirst and the need to sleep, and in high doses can sharply increase body temperature, leading to kidney and heart failure. Australian Medical Association Queensland public health committee chairwoman Jeanette Tait said there had been considerable community discussion about the use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, to relieve cancer pain.
However, Dr Tait said the medical community in Australia was generally not in favour of such experiments.
“The medical community would look askance at this type of trial, except that it is being conducted by such a respected body,” she said.
“As it is such a fairly substantial body doing the trial, especially with FDA approval, I think the results will be very interesting. There’s so much to be wary about illicit drugs and their use.
“There’s more research coming in all the time pointing out that there really is adverse effects of using these illicit drugs.”
Dr Halpern, who has done other research on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, said his research was “not about trying to create some sensationalistic storm”.
“This is about trying to help these patients in a meaningful way,” he said.
Dr Halpern said, when used properly, some drugs had medical benefits and reduced stress and increased empathy. “There are anecdotal reports of people dying of cancer who take ecstasy and they are able to talk to their family and friends about death and other subjects they couldn’t broach before.”
Reputable scientific evaluation of psychedelic drugs has been non-existent since Harvard last was involved in LSD studies in 1963.
In the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelic drugs were legally administered for psycholytic therapy.
The misuse of LSD led to prohibition in most countries.
An article in The Australian reports on the FDA approval of MAPS’ MDMA/cancer anxiety study and quotes Australian Medical Association Queensland public health committee chairwoman Jeanette Tait as saying, “The medical community would look askance at this type of trial, except that it is being conducted by such a respected body,” she said. “As it is such a fairly substantial body doing the trial, especially with FDA approval, I think the results will be very interesting. There’s so much to be wary about illicit drugs and their use.” Dr. Tait’s comments reaffirm the value of MAPS’ efforts to conduct MDMA psychotherapy research at Harvard, since the research is being taken more seriously as a result of where it is being conducted.