Scientists discover new effective pain relief in Australian fungus

In a new study, researchers found an Australian fungus could provide effective pain relief and the potential for a safer less addictive drug.

It may help develop an opioid alternative and address the opioid epidemic of deaths by overdose.

The research was done by an international team led by the University of Sydney and Queensland.

The fungus, a previously unknown Penicillium sp, was sampled from an estuary in Tasmania’s pristine Huon Valley.

The analysis revealed a set of uniquely shaped tetrapeptides mimicking endomophins; drug companies have invested several hundred million dollars in the hope of such a find.

The team then developed this into a new opioid type considered a gold standard but with fewer side-effects and created an effective analgesic for pain relief in the laboratory.

A patent application has been filed in Australia and further research, to confirm whether a new drug is in the making, is expected to be finalized in a couple of months.

The team says their findings were on the back of a decades-long search for such a holy grail of potential pain relief.

From the fungus, the researchers discovered three versions of tetrapeptides, a chain of four amino acids (the ‘molecular building blocks of life) joined by peptide bonds.

But it was their curious molecular structure that caught the researchers’ attention.

In some molecules, geometric orientation is referred to as chirality or ‘handedness’.

Molecules can be ‘left-handed’ or ‘right-handed’, mirror images of each other, but the way they are orientated makes a huge difference. In nature, almost all amino acids are ‘left-handed’ in shape.

There are exceptions in nature, with molecules twisted in the ‘right hand’ orientation, but this is extremely rare in mammals. The ones that were found in the fungus were twisted in this unusual way.

The team says no one had ever pulled anything out of nature, anything more ancient than a vertebrate that seemed to act on opiate receptors.

The sample that prompted the research had been taken from the Tasmanian estuary as part of a program.

If their follow-up testing is successful, as with any drug discovery, it could be a decade before this would result in a new medication available for purchase by the public.

One author of the study is Professor Macdonald Christie.

The study is published in PNAS.

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