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Researchers using Canadian Light Source to develop improved pain meds

Calgary researchers are using the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon to discover how to build opiates using enzymes.
canadian light source
The Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatoon.

SASKATOON — Researchers working with the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan to unravel the structure of enzyme production, to create improved pain medications.

Dr. Ken Ng, University of Windsor professor and University of Calgary adjunct professor, and UCalgary PhD student Sam Carr have been undergoing protein crystallography research to better understand how natural opiates are produced.

“If you could have this sort of understanding for many different enzymes, you could have a type of toolbox,” said Carr. “You could modify these drugs in a specific way to produce different versions that could possibly have different pharmaceutical properties.”

With the help of a UCalgary team headed by Dr. Peter Faccini, the group has identified one unique enzyme involved in the production of the pain drug codeine, which they are imaging using the CMCF beamline at the CLS.

“Imagine this sort of like an assembly line,” said Carr. “There are a lot of different steps in this specific pathway, and each enzyme contributes a different step from the starting product to the finished drug.”

Using the CLS to image the structure of the enzyme, Carr and Ng formulated ideas for how to modify this natural enzyme to create pain medications that are more effective with fewer side effects — ultimately the long-term goal of the project, said Ng and Carr.

“Due to the specific challenges with this particular project, I think it would have been impossible to solve this structure without a synchrotron,” Ng said.

In continuing this research, Ng and Carr anticipate using this knowledge in the future to other natural drug synthesis, like with enzymes that help make anti-microbial drugs.

“There is a really rich diversity of applications for these compounds,” Ng said. “This structure gives information, not just about opioid biosynthesis, but other natural products that include other classes of painkillers and medicinal applications like cancer treatment.”

Ng said the research is intended to improve opiate pain medication like morphine and codeine for patients, which can cause multiple side effects including physical dependency.

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