effects and possible death because of a genetic defect inherited from their parents.
Scientists in Sheffield and Los Angeles believe they may have identified the enzyme that breaks down the drug in the body, but research has also shown that this enzyme is missing in 8 per cent of the population.
Since 1988, only 14 people are known to have died from taking the drug in Britain, but why they should have succumbed when thousands of others suffered no reaction has puzzled doctors.
Now a team from Sheffield University's Department of Medicine and Pharmacology has established that an enzyme called cytochrome P450 2D6 is responsible for breaking down Ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). The people who died, mainly young nightclubbers, appeared to have overheated and died from hypothermia, one of the side-effects attributed to the drug. Other effects include seizures and persistent psychosis.
The Sheffield team, professors Frank Woods and Geoffrey Tucker and Dr Martin Lennard, reached what it described as early findings after collaborating with Dr Arthur Cho of the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr Lennard said: 'Our tests have been carried out so far in test-tube conditions only, but we believe this is a start to understanding why some people seem to suffer severe side-effects after taking MDMA. The responsible enzyme is lacking in about one in every 12 people because they have inherited two defective genes from each parent.
'This means that it takes much longer for their bodies to break down the drug, so it stays in their system much longer. There are alternative ways of secreting the drug, but is seems likely that higher levels will remain for longer.' Dr Lennard said the combination of toxic side-effects could be fatal, although Ecstasy users who lack P450 2D6 and who escape serious side-effects may also find that their inability to absorb the drug could mean they avoid the long-term neurological damage associated with it.
'We intend to take our research further but we don't yet know what form it will take. We have only achieved results in the test tube so far, so we are still speculating on the effects in humans.'
Dr Lennard said it was too early to say whether tests would be carried out on humans in Britain or the US.
Research in the field is made difficult because Ecstasy is illegal, ranked in the UK as a Class A drug on a par with heroin.
Lifeline, the Manchester drug advisory service, yesterday warned of the emergence of a potentially dangerous dance drug being sold as Ecstasy. Snowball, which contains high levels of MDA, the parent drug of Ecstasy, caused concern among enforcement agencies more than a year ago when a consignment from Latvia flooded into Britain.
It contained high levels of MDA, to the extent that some drugs specialists warned that three tablets could lead to an overdose. Alan Haughton, the manager of Lifeline, said: 'We thought we had seen the back of Snowballs but we have received several reports lately that they are back on the scene.'Reuse content