Flinders Medical Centre Foundation
Flinders Medical Centre Foundation

Alcohol and drug use

Investigating Ecstasy Related Deaths
What Role Does Alcohol Play In Acute Pancreatitis?

Investigating Ecstasy Related Deaths
First Published: Investigator - January 2007

Every year we hear of young Australians who, after consuming MDMA (Ecstasy), develop such a high body temperature which despite urgent hospital treatment can result in death.

Professor Bill Blessing, Dr Youichirou Ootsuka and their team at Flinders Medical Centre are internationally recognised for their investigations as to how MDMA causes the body temperature to increase to such extreme levels.

“We have found that MDMA causes an abnormal reaction within the brain centres regulating the body temperature,” said Professor Blessing, Senior Consultant Neurologist. “This results in more heat being produced and less heat being lost.”

Normally, when body temperature increases, for example when you exercise, blood will flow closer to the skin so that heat can be released and the body temperature is reduced. When you are cold the reverse occurs. The brain sends messages to constrict the skin blood vessels (vasoconstriction), so that the flow of blood is directed away from the body surface, thus preventing loss of heat from the body.

Through experiments the team at Flinders Medical Centre has noted an abnormal response within the brain heat regulation mechanisms when MDMA is in the system. When a dose of MDMA is taken the skin blood vessels constrict, just as they normally do in the cold. Even though the body is becoming hot, it reacts as though the environment is cold. This is dangerous as the body also continues to create heat.

The combination of increased heat production and decreased heat loss causes the body temperature to rise to dangerous levels, causing muscle meltdown, kidney failure and fits, so that death may occur.

“Another stream of our research has been to identify a drug which can reverse the effects of MDMA,” said Professor Blessing. “We have found that the antipsychotic drug Clozapine, commonly known for its use in the treatment of schizophrenic patients, almost miraculously both reverses the extra heat production and the vasoconstriction caused by MDMA.”

Professor Blessing and his team continue to investigate the affects of MDMA with the aim of providing important information in the treatment of Ecstasy related overdoses to help save lives.

What Role Does Alcohol Play In Acute Pancreatitis?
First Published: Investigator - February 2006

Research into the role that alcohol plays in acute pancreatitis is under investigation at Flinders Medical Centre.

Acute pancreatitis is caused by alcohol or gallstones and results in damage to the pancreas which becomes inflamed. This inflammation is part of a natural healing process that the body takes on to try to repair itself. If the attack is mild there will be a period of discomfort for the patient however the outcome is usually a positive one.

More severe cases, sometimes found within heavy drinkers, mean a much stronger defensive reaction takes place within the body. Due to this strong reaction healthy neighbouring organs can be damaged as the body creates an excess of immune system chemicals. If this occurs or a bacterial or fungal infection sets in the prognosis is usually poor and the recovery rate low.

Associate Professor Gino Saccone, Chief Medical Scientist in the department of Surgery at Flinders, and his team including research fellow Masahiko Kawamoto, are focusing on the effects alcohol has on the pancreas and a small valve called the Sphincter of Oddi, which regulates the flow of digestive fluids into the small bowel.

The team has found that when alcohol is absorbed through the stomach the flow of blood within the pancreas decreases and the Sphincter of Oddi function is compromised. This can cause damage within the pancreas due to insufficient oxygen reaching the tissue through the blood and a build up of pressure in the pancreas.

At this point in time no special treatment or therapy other than pain relief is available for sufferers of acute pancreatitis as all the steps in the disease process are not completely understood.

“The mechanisms that we are revealing are part of a complex series of events that happen within the body to cause acute pancreatitis. We must understand the whole group of events before a suitable treatment can be found,” says Prof Saccone.

A major finding made here at Flinders is the discovery of a nervous pathway that seems to be involved in causing the changes that take place within the pancreas and Sphincter of Oddi when alcohol is consumed.

The next step for the Flinders team will be to establish the characteristics of the nerves involved in the processes that contribute to acute pancreatitis so that a specific treatment can eventually be found.

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