A component of the illegal drug ecstasy could help fight obesity, scientists at Trinity College in Dublin have discovered.

The Dublin scientists accidentally made the discovery when they were researching the negative effects of the psychotic drug. The drug, officially known as MDMA, can produce positive medical effects after it has been chemically altered. They determined the drug affects a protein in cells which could burn fat.

"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," according to the research.

"However, no engine is perfectly efficient and wasted energy conversion in mechanical engines and mitochondria is manifested as heat.
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"Thus, increasing the inefficiency of mitochondria burns more fuel (fat) while also generating more heat."

Head of Biochemistry at Trinity College, Dr Richard Porter, said the study highlights the serendipitous nature of science.

“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 off fat," he said.

The research team included Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Mary Meegan, and postgraduate students Orlagh Kelly and Yvonne McNamara.

The findings were published in the leading peer review journal Mitochondrion.