Designer drugs: new advances in drug development

The world of drug discovery is undergoing significant advances with the pioneering work of researchers at the University of Sydney. From open source research methods, to drug delivery and the development of new compounds, our research teams are working to provide solutions that will ultimately enable better management of diseases.

Professor Iain McGregor is investigating the worldwide problem of drug addiction. As Director of the Psychopharmacology Laboratory, McGregor and his team are assessing the effects of the neuropeptide oxytocin on behaviour and brain function. “We recently found that oxytocin may play a role in mediating the ultrasocial effects of popular party drugs like MDMA, known as Ecstasy, and GHB, known as Fantasy,” says McGregor.

These drugs produce feelings of euphoria, enhanced communication and closeness to others. “The drugs may preferentially activate brain oxytocin systems to produce their characteristic prosocial and prosexual effects. If we block oxytocin in the brain, the social effects of these drugs seem to disappear.”

However, party drugs such as MDMA and GHB may also have long-term toxic effects on the brain. Repeated drug use may cause adaptations in the brain’s oxytocin system, such that the drugs actually cause long-lasting deficits in social behaviour. “We know that MDMA has been linked to depression, anxiety and cognitive deficits. One of the hallmarks of drug addiction is social withdrawal and social isolation, and we’re investigating whether this is linked to changes in the oxytocin system”.

Preliminary studies indicate that raising oxytocin levels in the brain can reduce acute drug withdrawal symptoms. “This could lead to the therapeutic use of oxytocin for drug addiction,” says McGregor. “In this setting, oxytocin may help those addicted to drugs to resocialise. We’re currently planning a trial to examine these potential effects using intranasal oxytocin in drug detoxification and withdrawal.”

Oxytocin may also have a role in other areas. “Oxytocin is like a social peptide in the brain; it mediates bonding between humans, including mother to child. As a therapeutic agent it may provide benefits in people with mental illness, for example, to stimulate social interaction in people who are depressed. The potential benefits of oxytocin are very exciting,” says McGregor.