Ketamine use may lead to liver cancer

Popular recreational drug also blamed for shrinking users' bladders, study finds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 5:21am

Ketamine users may be damaging their livers and shrinking their bladders, a new study of abusers of the illegal recreational drug has found.

In two of the cases in the study, backed by Chinese University, the patients were found to have liver fibrosis, leaving them with livers resembling those of 60-year-old alcoholics.

If it goes untreated, say for three to five years, it may have developed into liver cancer by the time symptoms emerge, and a transplant may be required
Professor Grace Wong Lai-hung

In the worst-case scenario, abusers might develop liver cancer, a medical specialist warned.

"If it goes untreated, say for three to five years, it may have developed into liver cancer by the time symptoms emerge, and a transplant may be required," said Professor Grace Wong Lai-hung, a gastroenterology and hepatology specialist at the university.

The researchers found that if ketamine users quit, they would halve their chances of developing liver problems. However, it was largely unknown how abuse of the drug damaged the liver, Wong said.

In the study, 305 abusers aged 16 to 29 who suffered from ketamine-related urinary tract dysfunction were examined, said the research team at the Youth Urological Treatment Centre, which was set up by Chinese University with government funding in 2011.

Six out of 10 subjects were women. All had a six-year history of ketamine abuse and had shown symptoms of urinary tract dysfunction for 14 months.

Of the 195 patients for whom follow-up data was available, 43 per cent had abnormal liver function. Seven were found to have a higher risk of liver problems, and three of the patients had damaged bile ducts.

The patients also had shrunken bladders. Urination was frequent and painful, the team said. Some of them visited the toilet more than 20 times every night.

The 195 patients received anti-inflammatory therapy with oral medication and follow-up treatment. The bladder problems improved significantly for about 70 per cent of them afterwards. They had either quit ketamine or halved their use.

Bladder capacity rose 78 per cent to 144 millilitres for people who quit ketamine after joining the study, and by 23 per cent to 175ml for those who stopped abusing the substance before the study began. A normal adult bladder holds more than 400ml.

But for patients who continued on the drug throughout the study, bladder capacity shrank from 85ml to 76ml.

Centre co-director Dr Tam Yuk-him said all patients had suffered irreversible damage to their bladders. Medication just helped the symptoms, he said.

"Some patients will have only half or one-third of the normal bladder capacity for the rest of their lives," Tam said. With the oral medication, "we hope the reduced symptoms will give them the motivation to quit ketamine".

Any person found in possession of or using ketamine can be fined up to HK$1 million and jailed for seven years.