NOV 27, 2019 8:51 AM PST

New Painkiller More Effective than Opioids Discovered in Mud

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

Researchers have discovered a new painkiller dubbed to be as effective as opioids, only minus their disadvantages, from a 16-year old mud sample found nearby a Tasmanian boat ramp. 

The discovery happened while researchers from the University of Queensland were investigating the chemistry of marine fungi. Professor Rob Capon, from the university’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience said, “We came across a fungus that yielded a new type of molecule which we named the bilaids, that I noticed were similar to endomorphins – natural peptides produced by the human body that activate opioid receptors and provide pain relief.”

This then prompted him to team up with researchers from the University of Sydney to further investigate the molecules for their potential usage as a painkiller. During this time, they made chemical modifications to the bilaids to create a new molecule, called bilorphin, which they claim to be as potent as morphine in resolving pain. 

According to Professor Macdonald Christie from the University of Sydney, “No one had ever pulled anything out of nature, anything more ancient than a vertebrate, that seemed to act on opioid receptors – and we found it,” Professor Christie said. “If this proves successful and leads to a new medication, it will significantly reduce the risk of death by overdose from opioid medications such as codeine.”

Normally, molecules may be described as either “left-handed” or “right-handed”. Although most natural amino acids are “left-handed”, the bilaids featured alternating “left-handed” and “right-handed” amino acids. This means that, while opioids like morphine activate opioid receptors with a bias towards one cascade, bilorphin is able to activate these receptors with the opposite bias. 

The researchers thus hypothesized that the signaling bias is likely behind the negative side effects, such as addiction and respiratory depression, seen in those taking opioid drugs. This then means that the activation of this opposite bias may be behind bilorphin’s potential to be a safer pain relief drug. 

According to Professor Capon, “Although our discovery of an analgesic from an estuarine mud fungus was serendipitous, it does beg the question – with an almost infinite diversity of fungi in soils, plants, animals and waters of the planet, perhaps we should be exploring other fungi for analgesics?”


Sources: SciTechDaily, PNAS, University of Queensland and KSHB

About the Author
  • Science writer with keen interests in technology and behavioral biology. Her current focus is on the interplay between these fields to create meaningful interactions, applications and environments.
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