MDMA and UWA 121: University of Western Australia Creating Drug Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease

Words by: Natasha Bloomfield

Image credit: Vice News

By now you’ve probably read about the experiments American scientists are conducting using illicit drug MDMA (ecstasy) as a treatment for social anxiety in autistic adults. However, there are researchers closer to home that are also conducting experiments with MDMA. The project in 2002 at the University of Western Australia in Crawley in conjunction with institutions in Canada, synthesising a new drug, called UWA-101, a year later. The compound is structurally related to MDMA, and variations are currently being trialled as treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

 At the head of the research team is Dr. Matthew Piggott, who has been an Associate Professor at UWA’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry for several years and affiliated with the research team since its inception. After twelve years of experimentation, and an incident in 2004 at a conference in Cairns where data from animal testing was disclosed that eliminated UWA-101’s chances of ever being patented, the best compound the team now have is known as UWA-121. Piggott explains that the two are slightly different, UWA-121 performing “better in the best animal model of PD than UWA-101.”

 The UWA-121 drug can be used in conjunction with levodopa, which is currently the most common drug treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Piggott says that UWA-121 “improves the quality of levodopa therapy – makes it last longer and reduces the dyskinesia (involuntary movement) that is a problem with long-term levodopa therapy.”

 So what’s the problem with the wonder drug?

 Significantly, as the new drug has never been consumed by humans, the question of which negative or positive effects of MDMA UWA-121 retains remains uncertain. However, Piggott suggests that “studies done on rats indicate that UWA-101 does not possess MDMA-like or amphetamine-like psychoactivity. If it does not cause euphoria like MDMA does, or the rush that amphetamines induce, then UWA-101 would not likely be a target for abuse. Whether tolerance to the drug would develop over time, we don’t (and will never) know.”

 Currently the project is in limbo until a funding grant of hundreds of thousands of dollars is received. Piggott continues to submit grant applications to further proceed the project, with one currently in place at the National Health and Medical Research Council. He suggests that the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is another possible source for funding.

 UWA-101 has been administered in conjunction with levodopa in trials on rats and marmosets on two occasions, both in Canada, since 2012. The same rat studies can be conducted in WA, “as long as ethics approval is obtained. At the moment, it’s funding that is preventing our next round of rat studies.”

 He says that the drug is “some way off clinical trials. First we need to select a drug candidate that shows promise in animal models and that can be patented. The next step would be pre-clinical safety evaluation. If the drug candidate is effect and safe in animal models, and we had secured a patent, then we would apply for approval for a small clinical trial.”

With a prediction of at least a three to five year period needed to identify a drug candidate, and a few more years on top of that to complete clinical trials, the drug’s release into the public domain is seemingly a lifetime away. According to Parkinson’s Australia, there is currently no known cure for Parkinson’s disease. Therefore, one has legitimate cause to ask if the funding for a new drug treatment can’t come soon enough. However, it would seem that we are in for the long haul, with the time to pursue the impossible decidedly upon us.