Got Pain? Researchers Have Some Ideas That May Surprise You
April 14, 2000 (New York) -- Researchers seeking new ways to relieve the
pain that persistently plagues many Americans are looking in some unusual
places: a snail found in the Philippines, a poisonous frog from Ecuador, and
the marijuana plant.
According to a recent Gallup survey, pain is a fact of life for many in the
U.S., with 46% of women and 37% of men reporting that they experience some pain
daily. Pain can be acute, or short-lived, like that experienced after an
accident; or chronic, meaning it lasts long after an injury has healed or is
due to persistent inflammation or nerve damage. Some diseases, such as diabetes
and shingles, can cause long-term pain that is difficult to treat.
Several types of pain medication are now commonly used, but all have
drawbacks. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS, and the
anti-inflammatory drug Tylenol are used for milder pain. But they don't work on
all types of pain, and some may result in side effects such as bleeding in the
intestinal tract. For more severe pain, doctors may give narcotics, which can
cause problems such as slowed breathing and constipation, and which can also be
addictive with prolonged use. This has led researchers to look for drugs that
have the same actions without the side effects.
A review in the April issue of Nature Biotechnology describes
research that is uncovering how pain is eased and that is leading to the
development of drugs from marijuana, peppers, snails, and frogs that target
particular pain-production centers in the body, among other things.
One area of research involves the marijuana derivatives called cannabinoids.
Like narcotics such as morphine and codeine, cannabinoids interfere with the
area of the brain that perceives pain. Research at the University of California
in San Francisco suggests that cannabinoids are more effective than opioids for
some types of chronic pain. But cannabinoid research is controversial, and
researchers are focusing on separating the compound's useful characteristics
from the euphoric properties that make marijuana attractive to drug
Peppers are another hot area of pain research. Investigators treating
patients with overactive bladders and a diabetes-related condition in which
people experience pain in their extremities are working with a derivative of
capsaicin, the main ingredient in hot peppers. Capsaicin itself is a pain
reliever, but researchers say the derivative seems to have fewer side
The lowly snail is making headlines, too, with reports that venom from the
cone snail, which lives on the coast of the Philippines, is a potent drug for
relieving pain after surgery and some types of chronic pain. Researchers at
Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere have used a compound from the venom --
and say it is a thousand times more potent than morphine, and an option for
very ill patients who do not respond to morphine.