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Flower Power: Fighting the Opioid Crisis With Plants

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The world has seen a striking uptick in opioid overdoses, a mortal side effect of the opioid epidemic, over the past two decades. 

This crisis from centuries of prescription and subsequent overprescription of opiates as a form of chronic pain management. These medications, which include drugs such as morphine, heroin and OxyContin, work by blocking pain signals between the body and brain. 

Despite their efficacy, opioids also have highly addictive properties. Opiates, which are defined as opioids derived from natural sources, are prescribed only in patients with extreme pain if other courses of treatment prove continually unsuccessful. 

Additionally, this comes with another dangerous consequence: tolerance, which occurs when the body acclimates to medication dosages, lowering efficacy. This consequently leads to users requiring higher dosages in order to achieve the desired effects.

However, current research shows that there may be some hope to ease the effects of the epidemic. 

A UCI study, led by Dr. Olivier Civelli and his first co-authors, UCI Pharm.D. student Lamees Alhassen and Jordan University of Science and Technology’s Department of Clinical Pharmacy-Faculty member Dr. Khawla Nuseir, have observed promising results of a co-medication to be administered with morphine from an unexpected source — YHS, an extract from the Corydalis yanhusuo plant. 

According to the report, YHS is an extract that has been used for its analgesic — or pain-relieving — properties in traditional Chinese medicine. Its accessibility and apparent user safety could mean that administering YHS with opioid doses may have an immediate, positive effect on minimizing opioid addiction, which may alleviate the opioid crisis. 

Civelli and his co-authors studied the effects of YHS in mice over a seven-day period to observe whether co-administration of the extract and variable morphine doses could treat pain without building tolerance. 

The findings revealed that, when combined with morphine, YHS completely prevented tolerance development at any dosage of morphine. The co-medication regimen also effectively blocked the detection of painful stimuli in the mice. 

Another of the lab’s research focuses was the study of reward behavior in the brain, which is a major component in opioid misuse. Civelli, Alhassen and Nuseir found that when mice were dually treated with YHS and morphine, they exhibited less drug-seeking behavior, signifying that the regimen significantly limited the neurological reward of morphine. 

The effects of YHS on withdrawal symptoms were also observed. According to the report, morphine-treated mice showed “significantly elevated signs” of withdrawal, while the co-medicated mice displayed no withdrawal behaviors, behaving indistinguishably from placebo-treated mice. 

Civelli’s lab reports that although there are clinical limitations to the study, the current results warrant further research. The report states that the promising findings on incorporating YHS into pain management can have an “immediate effect on this epidemic.”

Read the full report of the YHS trials here

Lauren Le is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at laurenl@uci.edu.