Hot, hotter, hottest. The Carolina Reaper is the world’s hottest pepper. But one Moroccan plant puts even the strongest pepper in its place. An extract from that scorching shrub could change how doctors handle pain relief.
Spiny, cactus-like Euphorbia resinifera contains the chemical compound resiniferatoxin (RTX). The words are a mouthful—but don’t eat this plant! On the Scoville Scale, a measure of food’s spiciness or heat, RTX is 10,000 times hotter than the Carolina Reaper and (wait for it) 4.5 million times hotter than a wimpy jalapeño.
Researchers at the National Center for Biotechnology Information have begun channeling all that high heat. They discovered that RTX binds to a protein molecule in nerves called TRPV1 (TRIP-vee-one). TRPV1 senses and adjusts body temperature in animals and humans. It also causes a body to feel pain. When RTX binds to TRPV1, calcium flows into the nerve, overloading and shutting down the pain-sensing nerve cells.
God created pain for a reason. If you pick up a burning object, your TRPV1 sensors react, telling you to drop it. That ouch is God’s mercy and grace, designed for your protection. Completely eliminating pain isn’t wise, but controlling it with RTX could be helpful.
Michael Iadarola and Gian Luigi Gonnella test RTX on dogs and rats. They inject the substance into the animals’ joints. RTX seems to ease suffering. Of course, animals can’t say how they’re feeling, but Iadarola told tech magazine WIRED that dogs “went from basically limping to running around.”
RTX also lasts longer than other painkillers. Dogs in Iadarola and Gonnella’s study seemed to remain pain-free for about five months. In one case, a dog went 18 months without a re-injection.
The best property of RTX may be its ability to target a single injected area—unlike most narcotic medicines (opioids). And RTX doesn’t affect other types of nerve cells, like the ones that feel light touch or move muscles.
Currently, the National Institutes of Health is running trials with cancer patients. Initial results seem hopeful. Researchers believe RTX may someday be widely available to humans. Doctors could inject it directly into a joint or organ for lasting, focused pain relief.
If RTX does show up at your local pharmacy, it won’t be used for a finger jammed at volleyball practice. It will be a serious drug reserved for serious situations—since the treatment itself is quite painful initially. But who knows? The plant that packs a wallop could one day replace opioids for managing chronic pain.