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TCD finds 'ecstasy' may help burn fat

SCIENTISTS at Trinity College have uncovered a component of illegal drug ecstasy which may be used in the fight against obesity.

They believe there may be some positive effects from the drug -- officially known as MDMA -- when it has been chemically altered.

The discovery was made by accident when they were researching the negative effects of the psychotic drug. They found that just as ecstasy produces heat in skeletal muscle, it also affected a protein in cells which could burn fat.

Energy conversion in our bodies is operated by mitochondria -- the organelles within our cells which are like mechanical engines.

"In the same way that engines convert chemical energy, in fuel, into kinetic energy to drive a car for instance, mitochondria convert one form of chemical energy e.g. fats, into useful energy for cells, tissues and whole body activity," the research outlined.

"However, no engine is perfectly efficient and wasted energy conversion in mechanical engines and mitochondria is manifest as heat.

"Thus, increasing the inefficiency of mitochondria burns more fuel (fat) while also generating more heat."

They found that the protein, named mitochondrial uncoupling protein (UCP3), previously identified as a potential key regulator of energy conversion in skeletal muscle, was switched on in mitochondria following ecstasy treatment.

The latest discovery is significant because it has uncovered a means to switch on UCP3 making it a potential anti-obesity and anti-type 2 diabetes target.

TCD head of Biochemistry, Dr Richard Porter and Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Mary Meegan's research groups, including postgraduate students Orlagh Kelly and Yvonne McNamara, were part of the research team.

"The study highlights the serendipity of science in that while investigating the damaging effects of a dangerous psychotropic drug, we have uncovered a potentially key physiological mechanism of metabolic regulation and have reignited the prospect of designing drugs to target this key protein (UCP3) in mammalian muscle, to burn of fat," he said.

The collaboration between the School of Biochemistry and Immunology and the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences has now published their discovery in the leading peer review journal Mitochondrion.