The healing power of nature

– Dec. 6, 2019

Fields full of poppies are both beautiful and essential to the fight against pain, as morphine is extracted from the Papaver somniferum poppy. However, could we be looking at fields full of fungus – not poppies – in the not too distant future? An international group of researchers led by the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland has now discovered a fungus that produces analgesic substances with fewer side effects.

Scientists have been on the hunt for an alternative to existing analgesic drugs like morphine for a long time, because the painkillers in use today (also referred to as opioids) have a number of different side effects, as well as addictive properties. The fungus discovered recently has brought researchers much closer to achieving their goal.

Not Papaver, but Penicillium

The newly-discovered fungus, a previously unknown species of Penicillium, was found near the mouth of a river in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. The scientists were there on a quest to find new substances in bacteria and fungi. The substances encountered in the Penicillium fungus stood out because of their unique molecular structures, which are similar to analgesic substances in the human body like endorphins. This is noteworthy, as such structures have previously only been detected in vertebrates.
The researchers managed to isolate a new opioid, called bilorphine, from the fungus. Initial tests have shown that it is able to relieve pain effectively with fewer side effects. Further research will now need to be done to establish whether this drug is also suitable for use by the public at large. However, marketing a new drug takes time: the researchers say that it could be another 10 years before it is available to buy.