A new means of improving the effects of anandamide – a natural, marijuana – like chemical in the body that provides pain relief has been discovered by UC Irvine and Italian researchers.
Led by Daniele Piomelli, UCI’s Louise Turner Arnold Chair in the Neurosciences, the team discovered an "escort" protein in brain cells that transports anandamide to sites within the cell where enzymes break it down. It was also found that blocking this protein – called FLAT – increases potency of anandamide.
Previous work by the researchers indicates that compounds that boost the natural abilities of anandamide may form the basis of pain medications that don’t produce sedation, addiction or other central nervous system side effects 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.”
Piomelli and his colleagues used computational methods for understanding how FLAT binds with anandamide and escorts it to cell sites to be degraded by fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) enzymes.
Anandamide has been dubbed “the bliss molecule” for its similarities to the active ingredient in marijuana and is important in regulating food consumption.
It was speculated by Piomelli and his collaborators that FLAT (FAAH-like anandamide transporters) may be particularly useful in controlling certain forms of pain — that caused by damage to the central nervous system, for example — and curbing addiction to such drugs as nicotine and cocaine.
Researchers from UCI, Italy’s University of Parma and University of Bologna, and the Italian Institute of Technology participated in the study that was supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, and the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
The study appeared in the Nov. 20 online version of Nature Neuroscience.