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Transporter offers reliable clues for safer pain medicine

Researchers have zeroed in on a transporter that actually quietens the body’s natural pain killers. This discovery will show the way for potent and non-habit //forming pain killers and will help perceive the pain threshold of AIDS patients.

Opioid peptides are natural pain relievers with receptors – first identified because they react to opium – throughout the body, says Dr. Vadivel Ganapathy, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Medical College of Georgia. Studies have shown, for example, opioid peptide levels increase during childbirth.

Many potent pain killers, such as morphine and codeine, override this natural pain control system by directly activating opioid peptide receptors. While pain control is effective, it comes at a price: potential addiction, immune suppression and constipation.

Now researchers want to know whether safer pain killers can be developed that augment the body’s natural pain-killing ability by targeting instead the opioid peptide transport system that terminates pain-control communication, says Dr. Ganapathy. 'This has the potential for non-addictive pain killers that are effective, but by a different mechanism.'

Many popular antidepressants work in a similar fashion to keep the body’s natural chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, working longer by keeping them from being taken back up into the neuron by transport systems. Chemical messengers are supposed to have limited action, he says. But depressed patients have insufficient levels of chemicals for adequate communication between neurons. Antidepressants provide more mileage from existing neurotransmitters.

Dr. Ganapathy hopes to do the same with endogenous pain killers. Armed with a two-year, $286,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he is working to clone the opioid peptide transporter he identified three years ago and identify the responsible gene and protein.


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