Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 00:01 UK

Ocean coral 'offers pain therapy'

Kenya Tree Coral
Kenya Tree Coral originate in the Indo-Pacific region

A compound harvested from soft coral off the coast of Taiwan could provide a new treatment for pain from intractable nerve damage, experts say.

Traditional painkillers like aspirin and even morphine often do little to take the edge off neuropathic pain.

But research in the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests Capnella imbricata, or Kenya Tree Coral, could provide relief.

The Taiwanese scientists report promising early trial results in rats.

Several important drugs have already been developed from chemicals found in coral reef organisms.

We believe that these marine-derived compounds could lead to the development of a new range of drugs of great potential
Lead researcher Dr Wen

Among these is the antiviral AZT, a treatment for people with HIV, which is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge.

Reefs have also yielded treatments for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukaemia and skin cancer.

Deep treasures

Dr Zhi-Hong Wen and colleagues at the National Sun Yat-Sen University have been testing a chemical called capnellene, which is isolated from soft coral collected at Green Island, a small volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean about 33km off the eastern coast of Taiwan.

The reef there is said to be home to more than 200 different types of coral.

Capnellene appears to work on the supporting cells that surround nerve cells, which are thought to be responsible for neuropathic pain in some way.

Recent research suggests inflammation plays a role, and inflammation activates supporting cells like microglia to release compounds that can excite nerves carrying pain signals.

People with neuropathic pain experience severe pain from a stimulus or touch that would normally cause only slight discomfort or stimuli that would normally induce no pain at all.

Some even get unpleasant or painful feelings even when there is no stimulus.

It is estimated that about 1 in 100 people in the UK have persistent neuropathic pain - many are people with nerve damage caused by diabetes.

Dr Wen's team tested capnellene and a second very similar compound in isolated microglia cells and in experimental models of neuropathic pain in rats, with promising results.

They say more studies are now needed to see if this could offer a new way to treat the condition.

Dr Wen said: "Today there are few pharmacological agents that can help people suffering from neuropathic pain, but we believe that these marine-derived compounds could lead to the development of a new range of drugs of great potential."

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