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Rare Tasmanian fungus identified as new class painkiller

Image by Anastasia Dulgier

Australian researchers, have discovered a unique fungus in Tasmania that produces novel molecules with similar activity to opioids, but without their nasty side-effects. Professor Rob Capon, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, said he and his team were investigating the chemistry of marine fungi, including a sample collected next to a boat ramp in Tasmania.

He teamed up with colleague Professor Paul Alewood, and the University of Sydney’s Professor Macdonald Christie, to see if they could harness these promising molecules to develop a new painkiller. Professor Alewood oversaw chemical modifications that delivered a new molecule based on the bilaids, name bilorphin, which is as potent as morphine and potentially far more suitable as a pain drug.

Professor Christie, said such a development could have a major impact globally. “No one had ever pulled anything out of nature, anything more ancient than a vertebrate, that seemed to act on opioid receptors – and we found it. If this proves successful and leads to a new medication, it will significantly reduce the risk of death by overdose from opioid medications such as codeine.”

It’s hypothesised that the signalling bias is behind the adverse side effects seen in opioid drugs – addiction, tolerance, respiratory depression – so by activating the opposite bias, bilorphin has the potential to be a safer pain drug.

Professor Capon stated that “Although our discovery of an analgesic from an estuarine mud fungus was serendipitous it does beg the question – with an almost infinite diversity of fungi in the soils, plants, animals and waters of the planet, perhaps we should be exploring other fungi for analgesics?”

They have filed a patent application for the potential drug, which is a modified version of a molecule found in a Penicillium fungus, and published their results in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.


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