A super-spicy Moroccan cactus offers hope to end our dependence on opioids

The plant offers many benefits over today's painkillers, including not being addictive: Study.

It is unlikely that any of us might bite into plants covered in thorns – particularly cacti. But if we did, biting into the cactus-like ‘resin spurge’ plant would definitely be a terrible, terrible idea — and not because you’ll get thorns where they shouldn’t be.

The key compound in the plant of interest to experts is resiniferatoxin (RFX) – which makes the plant alarmingly spicy (4.5 million times as hot as a jalapeno pepper, and 10,000 times hotter than the hottest peppers known to mankind). Eating the pepper could agonize anyone silly enough to consider biting into a cactus.

But, in an unlikely twist, scientists have found and confirmed that RFX could make an excellent natural pain-reliever.

The plant is native to Morocco, and a dried latex made from the plant has been used locally as an ancient herbal medicine for centuries. A new study has found that if injected RTX into aching joints, it destroys the nerve endings that signal pain. While that sounds like nerve damage – it isn’t.

RTX binds to another molecule present only in pain-sensing nerves.

The evil resin spurge.

The evil resin spurge.

When these two molecules bind, the gates controlling the amount of calcium entering the neurons are thrown open. With large amounts of calcium rushing in, the pain-sensing nerve endings get inactivated and shut down.

This is similar to how painkillers like capsaicin work, except that RFX, a capsaicin analog, is between 500 to 1000 times as potent. Researchers think it could soon be a tool to help release the pressure and dependence on opioid painkillers.

RTX has more than a few benefits over modern-day painkillers: It doesn’t require frequent doses, it targets only the source area causing the pain, and it doesn’t produce an addictive high like opioids do.

If developed and commercialized as a medicine, it could eventually replace opioids as the go-to choice to address major aches and pains — what has grown to become an addiction on a global scale.

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