Tramadol painkiller found in nature

For the first time ever, a synthetic medication produced by the pharmaceutical industry has been discovered in strong concentrations in a natural source. The surprising discovery by a team of European researchers is reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Led by Michel De Waard from the Grenoble Institute of Neurosciences, the team found that the African plant Nauclea latifolia produces large quantities of molecules that are identical to Tramadol, a wholly synthetic medication that is used world-wide as a painkiller.

The discovery is an important one in the ongoing effort by scientists to identify pharmaceutically active substances in traditional medicinal plants. Nauclea latifolia is a small shrub that is abundant throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In traditional medicine, the plant is used to treat different pathologies including epilepsy, fevers, malaria, and pain.

De Waard said the researchers were able to isolate the components in the plant that were responsible for the presumed analgesic effects by analyzing the root bark. “The biggest surprise in this study was the fact that this molecule was a known one,” he explained. “It was identical to Tramadol, a synthetic medication developed in the seventies. This medication is used world-wide, because although it is a derivative of morphine, it has fewer side effects than morphine, in particular addiction problems.”

In order to confirm their results, the researchers tested different processes with the aim of proving that the substance discovered was of natural origin. Their analyses were confirmed by three independent laboratories. “All results converge and confirm the presence of Tramadol in the root bark of Nauclea latifolia. On the other hand, no trace of this molecule was detected in the aerial part of the shrub [leaves, trunk or branches],” De Waard said.

The study reports that the concentration of Tramadol in the dried bark extracts was measured at 0.4 percent and 3.9 percent. “These are extremely high levels of active substance,” noted De Waard.

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