Elisabeth Mahase

Cocaine, the highly addictive drug often associated with the wealthier classes, has now been observed having a cannibalistic effect on human cells, according to a newly published paper.

A study carried out at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, found that the white powder can trigger an uncontrollable process that leads to cells digesting themselves, effectively turning them into cannibals.

The process known as autophagy is a vital part of a cells lifecycle, allowing them to be broken down and their parts to be recycled and reused. However, researchers now believe that cocaine stimulates this process to the point where it becomes out of control.

Lead researcher Dr Prasun Guha, said:

“A cell is like a household that is constantly generating trash. Autophagy is the housekeeper that takes out the trash – it’s usually a good thing. But cocaine makes the housekeeper throw away really important things, like mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell.”

The scientists also tested the effect of the experimental drug CGP3466B on nerve cells in mice, finding that it did help to protect the cells from cocaine induced autophagy. CGP3466B has been previously tested in clinical trials for the treatment of motor neurone diseases such a Parkinson’s. Although much more research is needed to prove whether this protective effect is mirrored in humans, this research could be a crucial step towards treating cocaine toxicity.