Researchers have discovered a new way to enhance the effects of anandamide, a natural marijuana-like chemical in the body that provides pain relief.
A team of University of California at Irvine and Italian researchers, led by Daniele Piomelli of UC Irvine, identified an "escort" protein in brain cells that transports the endocannabinoid anandamide to sites within the cell where enzymes break it down, reports HealthCanal . The scientists found that blocking this protein -- called FLAT -- increases the potency of anandamide.
Compounds which boost anandamide's natural abilities could form the basis of pain medications that don't produce sedation, addiction or other central nervous system (CNS) side effects, according to previous work by the scientists. These side effects are common with existing painkillers such as opiates.
"These findings raise hope that the analgesic properties of marijuana can be harnessed for new, safe drugs," said Piomelli, a professor of pharmacology. "Specific drug compounds we are creating that amplify the actions of natural, marijuana-like chemicals are showing great promise."
For the study, which appears in the November 20 online edition of Nature Neuroscience, Piomelli and his colleagues used computers to analyze how FLAT binds with anandamide and escorts it to sites within the cell to be degraded by the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzymes.
Anandamide has been called "the bliss molecule" because of its similarities tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana.
A neurotransmitter that's part of the body's natural endocannabinoid system, anandamide has been shown in studies by Piomelli and others to have analgesic, anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects. It's also important in regulating hunger and thus food consumption.
Blocking FAAH's activity enhances several effects of anandamide without generating the "high" produced by marijuana.
Piomelli and his team members speculate that inhibiting the action of FLAT (FAAH-like anandamide transporters) might be especially useful in controlling certain kinds of pain -- such as that caused by damage to the central nervous system -- and, interestingly, in curbing addiction to drugs such as cocaine and nicotine.
Researchers from UCI, Italy's University of Parma and University of Bologna, and the Italian Institute of Technology took part in the study, which was supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, and the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences.