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Matthew Piggott.

Illicit party drug ecstasy may hold the key to greatly enhancing the lives of Parkinson's patients and research at the University of WA is playing a vital role in harnessing the potential therapeutic benefits of the drug.

A team headed by medicinal chemist Matthew Piggott, in collaboration with colleagues in Canada, has created new compounds or analogues that mimic the potential therapeutic effects of ecstasy but without the associated "high" or possible neurotoxic effects.

It has been known for some time methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, also known as ecstasy) can improve the side effects of Parkinson's medication levodopa.

Levodopa restores movement in Parkinson's patients but, over time, its effectiveness can be reduced and it can also cause dyskinesia, the jerky involuntary movements often associated with Parkinson's.

Associate Professor Piggott said the best compound discovered so far, called UWA 101, lengthened "on time" of levodopa by up to 30 per cent. Perhaps more importantly, it increased the good-quality "on time" by 178 per cent.

Unfortunately, UWA 101 will never make its way to market because it was made public when published at a medical conference, taking away the financial incentive to develop and patent it. This means a drug company will never take it through to trials as a possible medicine.

Professor Piggott, whose father's battle with Parkinson's inspired his research, said his team was now focused on finding analogues of UWA 101 that retain or improve its efficacy and which can be patented. He said 40 to 60 analogues were now being tested.

He said it was hard to determine when, or even if, any of these compounds might one day become a medicine. If successful, it could mean Parkinson's patients would need to take their medication less frequently with a better-quality result.