LA JOLLA — A new group of painkillers--more powerful than morphine but apparently non-toxic and non-addictive--may be hidden beneath the surface of the Caribbean, according to research by two University of California scientists.
The sea whip, a soft coral that lives in warm waters, has been found to yield analgesic compounds that could one day be used to treat arthritis and other degenerative diseases, said researcher William Fenical of UC San Diego, who discovered the substances with colleague Robert Jacobs of UC Santa Barbara.
The compounds, called "pseudopterosins," are derived from the coral's chemical defense system, Fenical said. Although testing of the compounds has been limited to experiments with mice, they seem to work by restricting the release of prostaglandins, powerful hormones that can trigger pain, inflammation and fever, he said.
"The compounds have two responses: they reduce inflammation and they eliminate pain," Fenical said, adding that, if testing proves them safe and effective, the drugs could be used to treat arthritis, psoriasis and other inflammatory ailments.
"We still don't know exactly how they act--we're still working on that--but we do know that they're quite unique and different," he said.
A major difference between pseudopterosins and other powerful painkillers is that despite their powerful analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, the compounds do not appear to be narcotic or addictive.
"They're surprisingly non-toxic considering the powerful biological reactions they cause," he said.
Fenical, an organic chemist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Jacobs, a pharmacologist with UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute, discovered the pain-killing properties of pseudopterosins earlier this year while studying the noxious chemicals secreted by the sea whip to repel predators.
The two scientists kept their discovery a secret for six months, Fenical said, to give the University of California time to prepare an application for a patent on the new compounds. UC San Diego's announcement of the finding Wednesday coincided with the publication of an article by the two researchers in a scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Fenical said "a major U.S. drug company" is looking into developing anti-inflammatory medication from the compounds. However, he cautioned that it could be 10 years before drugs containing pseudopterosins are tested and approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA demands exhaustive and expensive testing for subtle or long-term side effects, particularly in the case of a remedy for a persistent problem like arthritis, Fenical said.
"We're not treating a life-threatening disease," he said. "People are going to be taking (pseudopterosins) for 10 years or more and they're going to be taking it chronically for arthritis pain. So, it's very important to know whether the material may be toxic."
Because the two researchers' findings were only made public Wednesday, the scientific community has yet to evaluate their work. Pharmacologists contacted by The Times expressed hope that the discovery would prove useful, but said they would reserve judgment until the compounds have been rigorously tested.
"It would be very nice if it were true," said William Beaver, a professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University's School of Medicine and Dentistry. "But there're an awful lot of things in analgesia that look promising in preliminary tests in animals but don't pan out in humans."
All further study of the compounds' usefulness and toxicity will be carried out under the direction of a major drug firm, which Fenical declined to identify. UC scientists will serve as consultants during this testing period.
The discovery of pseudopterosins is the latest in a series of breakthroughs Fenical has been involved with as a researcher with the California Sea Grant College Program since it began in 1977. Eight years ago, he announced the discovery of toxic compounds in Caribbean seaweed that have since been developed for use as organic weed-killers and insecticides.