The Body's Own Morphine: A Novel Therapeutic Target

Most people have heard of endorphins, a family of neuropeptides that play a role in the body’s internal reward and pain relief system. The human body also makes chemically authentic morphine -- identical to that of the opium poppy -- a fact that took the scientific world a long time to accept.

George Stefano, the director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at SUNY College at Old Westbury, studies morphine’s natural existence in the body. He discovered a receptor that responds to morphine, but not endorphins, in 1993 and has been characterizing its physiological functions ever since.

“We’re looking at how morphine affects living cells,” Stefano says, including the turning on and off of genes using the latest molecular biology techniques. With state-of-the-art instrumentation to perform microarray gene expression analysis, Stefano can study a large number of genes simultaneously — as many as 31,000.

Now, an Iowa-based biotechnology company seeks to bring Stefano’s body of work to the next level. MitoGenetics Inc. has signed an option agreement for the technology and entered into a research agreement with the Research Foundation. This allows the company to further evaluate the technology, develop commercialization strategies, and approach investors for further funding while additional research is being conducted.

The pathway from basic science discovery to application is in line with SUNY’s mission to contribute to the Entrepreneurial Century.

Morphine’s natural actions are profound, Stefano says. In addition to neural tissue, morphine also acts on the immune system, blood vessels and the gastrointestinal tract. Morphine’s effect is a general calming of these excitable tissues, preventing them from responding to background noise, while still allowing them to react to stronger signals.

Stefano and his colleagues are just beginning to explore how this broad-based dampening system might be exploited to help human health. The implications are huge as many human diseases are related to overactive immune systems. For instance, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases are linked to inflammatory processes.


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