Could a unique new fungus offer an opioid alternative?

Published Thu 17 Oct 2019 By Fact checked by Paula FieldA new fungus discovered in the estuarine waters of Tasmania could be the unexpected answer to the world’s opioid crisis, a current study suggests.

researchers taking samples from an estuary

A fungus present in Tasmanian estuarine water may yield an effective and safe opioid alternative.

Opioids — many of which are prescription painkillers, such as codeine — have created a worldwide health crisis. Many opioids are highly addictive substances that some people overuse or misuse.

According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 130 people die each day in the United States because of an opioid overdose.

The Health Resources and Services Administration call this “an unprecedented opioid epidemic.” The situation has led to the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraging countries to monitor the use of opioid drugs closely.

But while monitoring the use of opioids is helpful, scientists are on the lookout for opioid alternatives. They are searching for drugs that will treat chronic pain in the same way as opioids but are less likely to harm health or lead to misuse.

A novel discovery by researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia — in collaboration with colleagues from other academic institutions — may, in the future, lead to the development of one such potent alternative.

The team found an unknown species of the fungus Penicillium in an estuary in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. The researchers showed that this fungus contained a set of molecules called “tetrapeptides,” which are amino acids.

These molecules had a unique structure that emulates the shape of endomorphins, which are natural opioid chemical messengers that help deliver pain relief.

The team notes that these new fungus-derived tetrapeptides have the potential to cause fewer side effects than regular opioids, while still delivering effective pain relief.

A ‘never-before-seen’ molecular structure

Senior author Prof. Macdonald Christie and colleagues explain that the newly discovered fungus yielded three different versions of tetrapeptides — with a very interesting and unexpected molecular structure.

More specifically, the team found that these fungus-derived molecules had a surprising chirality, or “handedness,” which refers to the geometric orientation of the molecular structure.

Some molecules have a geometric property that means they can have a “left handed” or a “right handed” structure, the two of which are mirror images of each other.

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Tags: Left-Handed, Right-Handed, Molecules, Geometric Property, Endorphins, fungus-derived tetrapeptides, University of Sydney, Australia, Huon Valley, Tasmania

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