Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia believe they may have unlocked a process to develop a painkiller that's just as potent as morphine without addictive side effects — and the key was discovered in the Australian mud.
According to a press release from the University of Queensland, a sample of mud taken from Tasmania 16 years ago led to the discovery of a new type of molecule with unique properties that could be used to develop non-addictive painkillers.
The mud contained a sample of a fungus, which Professor Rob Capon noted has a similar makeup of endorphins — the amino acids in the body that activate pain relief.
Capon says the fungus molecules were unique in their "handedness." While most amino acids are described as "left-handed," the fungus molecules were made up of strands of four amino acids with alternating left-handed and right-handed features.
In the body, opioid receptors work by sending out two signaling cascades. Modern-day painkillers only activate one of those receptors, but scientists hope that painkillers built in a structure similar to the fungi could activate both receptors.
Though the theory is currently unproven, scientists believe that activating both signaling cascades in the opioid receptor could negate the addictive properties of opioid painkillers.
"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," Capon said.
Alex Hider is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @alexhider.