Thursday, September 01, 2005

Serendipity In Medical Discovery: Oleocanthal

We could be seeing another instance of serendipity aiding the efforts at drug development.  

There have been many instances of accidental discoveries.  One of the most famous was the observation that patients with tuberculosis, after treatment with iproniazid, sometimes became less depressed.  Subsequent investigation showed that iproniazid inhibits the action of an enzyme that breaks down several neurotransmitters, including serotonin.  This led to the development of the antidepressant monoamine oxidase inhibitors, as well as the antiparkinsonian drug, l-deprenyl.  

In the search for antimalarial drugs, antihistamines were discovered.  One class, the phenothiazines, turned out to have antipsychotic effects.  This led to the development of Thorazine.  Further work on phenothiazines led to the development of tricyclic antidepressants.  

Valproic acid (VPA), the active ingredient in Depakote, also was discovered by accident.  VPA was used as a solvent in the early studies on a drug that was being investigated as an anticonvulsant.  It turned out that similar, substantial improvement was seen in both the placebo group and the "active" drug group.  The improvement turned out to be due to the solvent, not the hoped-for drug.  

Several more examples are seen in the (PDF) document, Chance Favors the Prepared Mind, by Hugo Kubinyi.  That title alone could inspire another post, but I'll save that for later.

More recently, the Monell Chemical Senses Center has reported on a tantalizing discovery by one of its researchers, Gay Beauchamp.  Monell's press release (PDF) is here.  The full report (abstact only; subscription for full text) is in the journal Nature, and a summary is at News@Nature, here.

Extra-virgin olive oil mimics painkiller
Oil may help stave off cancer, as long as you stick to the good stuff.
31 August 2005

Good news for lovers of extra-virgin olive oil: besides being delicious on salads, it also contains a compound that mimics the effects of ibuprofen. So a Mediterranean-style diet might give you the supposed long-term benefits of that drug, such as a reduced cancer risk.

A daily dose of 50 g or 4 tablespoons of olive oil confers the equivalent of around 10% of the recommended ibuprofen dose for adult pain relief, say researchers led by Paul Breslin of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who discovered the effect. So although it won't cure a headache, it may give you some of the long-term benefits of repeated ibuprofen use, including helping to ward off Alzheimer's. [...]
There is an interesting aspect to this discovery, though.  Apparently, the folks at the Monell Chemical Senses Center have exquisite senses of taste and smell.  One of them noticed that there was a distinctive sharp taste to ibuprofen, and that the taste was similar to the sharpness found in certain kinds of olive oil.  The team was able to isolate the compound in olive oil that produces that distinct sharpness.  They named it oleocanthal: oleo=olive; canth=sting; al=aldehyde.  They synthesized pure oleocanthal and found that it has anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen, in that it inhibits the activity of COX-1 and COX-2.

At this point, nobody is claiming to have found a magical cure for anything.  However, it is interesting to find a new class of compounds that have anti-inflammatory activity.  This could help us understand the complex process of inflammation more thoroughly.  It also could help us understand at least one instance in which a food product turns out to have beneficial properties that would not be expected, based upon study of its main ingredients.

Categories: Science, medicine
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