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Painkillers from mud – scientists are creating drugs that are as potent as opioids

Posted October 18, 2019

Quick, find a new painkiller! Where will you look? Scientists from The University of Queensland and University of Sydney looked in mud and found exactly what we needed – a potential new class of painkiller as potent as opioids, but without their disadvantages.

16 years ago scientists collected a sample of estuarine mud. They extracted a sample of marine fungi and modified one molecule, which they called bilaid, from it. Scientists noticed that this molecule is similar to endomorphins, which are a natural peptides produced by the human body that activate opioid receptors. Now scientists patented the molecule and are creating a whole new class of painkillers, which should be tremendously effective, while reducing the risk of death by overdose from opioid medications such as codeine.

Handedness of bilaids is very unique – these molecules feature alternating ‘left-handed’ and ‘right-handed’ amino acids and activates the receptor with the opposite bias than morphine. Image credit: University of Queensland

The new molecule based on the bilaids, named bilorphin, is as potent as morphine and potentially far more suitable as a pain drug. Morphine and other opioids have significant side effects, such as low blood pressure and addiction.  Although a lot of testing remains to be done, bilorphin could actually be very safe or at least safer than morphine. This is because of the special ‘handedness’ of the bilorphin.

You see, bilorphin activates a different cascade of opioid receptors than morphine, which makes it effective, but could also help circumventing bias that causes side effects – addiction, tolerance, respiratory depression. Professor Rob Capon, one of the scientists behind the project, explained: “In Nature, many molecules can be described as either ‘left-handed’ or ‘right-handed’, and just like hands, they are mirror images of each other. While almost all natural amino acids are ‘left-handed’, the bilaids were unique in featuring alternating ‘left-handed’ and ‘right-handed’ amino acids”.

And the best part of this entire story is that the fungi that had that molecule was found in estuarine mud. In other words, an extremely potent painkiller, which could solve many opioid-related problems was found literally under scientists’ feet. There are so many fungi in our soil – scientists describe the diversity of fungi as “almost infinite” – there is clearly a lot of potential for pharmaceuticals we are yet to tap in.


Source: University of Queensland

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