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Methadone kills leukaemia cells

A surprising discovery at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Ulm University: Claudia Friesen and her team of researchers discovered that methadone, an agent used as a replacement-opiate in heroin addicts, is able to kill leukaemia cells that are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation. The study has just been published in the renowned journal "Cancer Research".

This study, coordinated by Dr. Claudia Friesen, is the first to investigate the effect of methadone on leukaemia cells. The researchers exposed leukaemia cells to different methadone concentrations. The agent had positive effects at high single doses, but the researchers also found that a long-term low dose of methadone can achieve the same effect.

Methadone has a twofold effect

Dr. Claudia Friesen. (Photo: University Hospital Ulm)
Methadone has two major effects in the cell: it prevents further cell division and the proliferation of cancer cells and activates signalling pathways that prompt a cell into cell death. Leukaemia cells have specific surface receptors that bind methadone. “It is important to note that methadone does not affect healthy blood cells,” said Friesen. She also stated that other cancers might be suitable for methadone treatment.

The researchers will now carry out further experiments to substantiate their findings and turn the results into concrete therapies. This usually takes several years, but in Friesen’s case, faster progress can be expected because methadone is well known and already used for the treatment of other diseases, including pain.

Source: University Hospital Ulm, 4 August 2008 (P, wp, 7 August 2008)

doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-08-1227
Claudia Friesen, Mareike Roscher, Andreas Alt, and Erich Miltner: Methadone, Commonly Used as Maintenance Medication for Outpatient Treatment of Opioid Dependence, Kills Leukemia Cells and Overcomes Chemoresistance. Cancer Res 2008 68: 6059-6064.
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