We have considered in an earlier article how nanotechnology – science and engineering on an extremely small scale – may help to revolutionise medicine, including the way that drugs act within the body.
The increased focus in recent years on opioid dependency among people suffering chronic pain has served to intensify the race among nanotechnologists to find new types of drugs and delivery systems which are as effective as opioids but with less risk of addiction. One particular direction which has been explored is the possibility of harnessing substances that occur naturally in the human body, thereby reducing the possibility of addiction.
One such substance is a peptide called enkephalin, a naturally occurring opioid-like substance which is released by neurons in the central nervous system. It has the potential to be a very potent painkiller, but on its own it has a significant limitation – it struggles to cross the crucial blood-brain barrier to bind with its corresponding opioid-receptor system. So that’s where nanotechnology is coming to the rescue.
Researchers in France have been successful in coating enkephalin in nanoparticles, likened to a type of biological fat. This coating makes it far easier for enkephalin to cross the blood-brain barrier to locate its corresponding receptor system.
Early results seem extremely promising and an additional benefit is that the painkilling effect seems longer lasting than morphine. The researchers say:
“Although further studies are needed to more precisely determine how dosage, administration frequency, and timing of treatment with [coated enkephalin] may affect the clinical outcome, this study opens a new exciting perspective for an efficient treatment of intense pain, which evades the severe side effects associated with morphine or related synthetic opioids.”
In addition, the versatility of this technology means that there is huge potential to use it as a delivery system for other types of naturally occurring substances which may have a pharmaceutical value.