Biofuel Crop's New Role: Painkiller

Researchers may have found a new pain remedy. It comes from the leaves of a poisonous shrub. And it’s as effective as aspirin. It may be even better. That’s because, unlike aspirin, it acts in two ways. 

The shrub grows wild in tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia. Nigerians have been using its fruit as medicine for years. And recently, its seeds have been in the news. Credit for that goes to Goldman Sachs, the powerful Wall Street investment firm. They cited the seeds as a source for future biodiesel production.

But Ezeja Maxwell is out to prove it has even more potential… as a painkiller. Maxwell’s research focuses on phytopharmacology, the study of medicinal plants. His study on the shrub was published in the International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology. It was done at Michael Okpara University of Agriculture in Umudike, Nigeria. (He actually gathered his samples of the leaves on university premises.)

The Road to Pain-Free

Maxwell’s team pounded the shrub leaves into a powder. Using methanol as a solvent, they prepared an 80% extract of what they believed to be the plant’s active components. Then, working with 100, 200, and 400 mg/kg doses of the extract, they compared its analgesic (pain-killing) effects to 400 mg/kg of aspirin.

Three standard animal tests were used. The first two – the “hot plate” and the “tail flick” tests – measure pain sensitivity when the central nervous system is stimulated. The third test – the “acid-induced writhing reflex” test – measures peripheral pain (from the muscles and tissues).

Results were pretty much the same in all three tests. The 100 mg/kg dose of the extract did not have much of an effect. But the 200 and 400 mg/kg doses did. Even 200 mg/kg had pain-relieving effects comparable to 400 mg/kg of aspirin.

The Dual-Acting Painkiller

The shrub with these pain-killing properties is Jatropha curcas. It’s also known as Physic Nut. And its dual mode of action is different from anything conventional medicine has to offer.

There are two ways to relieve pain. One acts on the central nervous system. That’s how morphine works. The other acts on peripheral pain. That’s how aspirin works – specifically, by suppressing prostaglandin production. (In 1971, John Vane won the Nobel Prize for this discovery.) Prostaglandins are the “messengers” that transmit pain signals from sensitive nerve endings to the brain.

Maxwell determined that Jatropha curcas “may be acting through both peripheral and central pain mechanisms or through suppression of prostaglandin activities.”

The nuts of the shrub are sometimes roasted and eaten, but they have a strong laxative effect. As for the seeds… forget about them except for biofuel production. They are fatally toxic. The leaves, too, are poisonous. They contain hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which is why the researchers diluted them with methanol. This is clearly not something you should try to do on your own. However, the leaves are safe to eat if steamed or stewed.

Maxwell found the methanolic leaf extract to be effective at a dose of 200 and 400 mg/kg. He is now carrying out more tests on the active ingredient. He hopes to determine its exact mode of action.

Patients often have a tough time tolerating the strong pain relievers that are currently on the market. They also have a host of side effects, including addiction. Maxwell’s results could lead to a safe, natural alternative.

We’ll keep an eye on the research. And we’ll update you on any new findings.

To your best health,

Michael Jelinek,

Managing Editor, NHD “Health Watch”

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