Could the answer to our nation's opioid epidemic be hidden in the open fields of North Texas?
Researchers in Denton say they've discovered a plant, native to Texas, that has the same pain relieving properties as some of the most powerful pills on the market but without the harmful side effects.
The Euphorbia bicolor, commonly known as "Snow on the Prairie," is native to Texas, Oklahoma, parts of Arkansas and Louisiana and is the focus of research for Texas Woman's University botanist Dr. Camelia Maier and TWU neuroscientist Dr. Dayna Averitt, alongside graduate student Paramita Basu.
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"It doesn't grow anywhere else in the world," said Maier, one of the first scientists ever to study the plant.
She said Native Americans once used Snow on the Prairie as a pain reliever and since many modern medicines, including opioids, are derived from plants, Averitt, whose recent work with a similar plant is now in trials as a terminal cancer pain drug.
"It's likely that this has similar phytochemicals but also maybe novel ones," said Averitt.
They have discovered a chemical inside the plant that, when used on tissue samples from animals, immediately stopped pain signals at the source of an injury — unlike opioids, which change the chemistry of the brain and can lead to addiction.
Averitt said their pre-clinical trials show a single injection of the chemical can stop pain for weeks at a time.
"So if you have an injury such as a burn on your arm, if you can target those signals before they even get into the brain. Then, you don't have to treat the brain. You don't have the negative side effects that are associated with targeting the brain," said Averitt.
It's promising work but miles from completion.
Students must meticulously and carefully harvest the plant because it is toxic.
Eventually, they will have do more tests to make sure its safe for human cells, but the team is hopeful that a safer option for millions of Americans living in pain is, in fact, hiding in plain sight.
"The answer is out there. Hopefully we can find it and maybe it's in our plant," said Averitt.
The researchers said the plant's pain relieving compound could be used in a cream to help burn victims.