Morphine relief without addiction?

Morphine has been used as a painkiller for decades, but it's an addictive substance. Now, Brigham Young University (BYU) chemists are using a vine plant that grows in Australia to develop a new painkilling molecule, but with fewer side effects. Still, more tests need to be done before this natural drug can replace morphine.

Morphine has been used as a painkiller for decades, if not centuries. Unfortunately for patients, morphine is also an addictive substance. Now, Brigham Young University (BYU) chemists are using a vine plant that grows in Australia to develop a new painkilling molecule, but with fewer side effects. The Deseret Morning News reports that the BYU chemists hope to ease pain with hasubanonine, the synthetic compound they created and which has a similar molecular structure as morphine. Still, more tests need to be done before this natural drug can replace morphine. But read more...

Here is the introduction of the Deseret Morning News article.

The researchers, led by undergraduate Spencer Jones and advised by Steven Castle, assistant professor of chemistry, created a mirror-image version of a molecule from the Japanese tape vine. That new synthetic molecule is very similar to the molecule for morphine. Now they're making more of the compound so it can be sent to the National Institutes of Health, which will check to see if it does, indeed, have painkilling properties, as they suspect.

"Japanese tape vine, or Stephania japonica, from which they derived their Hasubanonine compound, is found in Australia on the outskirts of rain forests." Below is a photo of the Stephania japonica or Japanese tape vine (Photography by David H. Lorence, National Tropical Botanical Garden; Copyright Smithsonian Institution). Here is a link to a larger version.

A picture of Stephania japonica

And here is another photo of this plant under study at BYU (Credit: KSL News/BYU). Here is a link to a larger version found on this page at KSL News.

Stephania japonica studied at BYU

But the researchers are not sure that their molecule can be a real painkiller.

The molecule made by the vine has no painkilling properties, Castle said, but most naturally produced molecules have mirror images. And the tape-vine's mirror image is close in structure to the morphine molecule. "We've synthesized a mixture of the two mirror-image compounds, the idea being we can take the mirror image of the natural one, send it to NIH to be tested to see if it kills pain. We are optimistic it has painkilling properties, and, if that's true, we are able to synthesize it fairly easily."

This research work has been published by Organic Letters under the title "Total Synthesis of (±)-Hasubanonine" (Volume 8, Issue 17, Pages 3757-3760). Here is a link to the abstract.

You also can read which this BYU press release, "BYU chemists create chemical similar to morphine from plant," which provides additional links and images.

Sources: Lois M. Collins, Deseret Morning News, August 17, 2006; and various web sites

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