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Protein key to Ecstasy deaths

 Scientists in the United States have identified a key protein involved in one of the most lethal side effects of the popular but illegal drug ecstasy.

Most ecstasy-related deaths are caused by an increase in body temperature, or hyperthermia, which leads to organ failure.

Researchers at Ohio Northern University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland have discovered that mice lacking a protein called UCP-3 managed to stay cool even after they were injected with the drug which is known chemically as MDMA.

"UCP-3 protein is involved in the thermogenesis induced by ecstasy," Jon Sprague, a pharmacologist at Ohio Northern University, says.

Knowing what the protein does opens up therapeutic options and could help to explain why some people who take ecstasy get very hot and others don't, he adds.

Sprague, Edward Mills at the NIH and their colleagues, who reported their findings in the science journal Nature, believe that the finding could lead to a way to deactivate the protein and prevent the body from overheating.

"We are currently looking at what drugs could be used that have potential therapeutic options in treating that hyperthermia based on the protein involved," Sprague explains.

How MDMA, which is popular at all-night dance parties and is said to heighten awareness, intensify emotion and make people feel good, induces hyperthermia or why some people react differently than others, is unknown.

Most deaths linked to the drug result from the body overheating, which leads to the breakdown of skeletal muscle and the failure of the kidneys and other organs.

"The drug causes the hyperthermia and then you couple it with the fact that it is involved in this dance culture -- that is why you see the problems you see," Sprague explained.

UCP-3 is found in skeletal muscle, which the researchers say may play a role in regulating body temperature.

If a drug is found or developed which can interfere with the protein, Sprague said it could potentially be given to reduce the very high body temperatures caused by using the drug.

The use of ecstasy had increased by 70% between 1995 and 2000, according to a United Nations report. Ecstasy and amphetamines have overtaken heroin and cocaine as the fastest growing global narcotic.

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