Kenneth NgBiochemistry professor Kenneth Ng is studying a naturally occurring enzyme in poppy plants in the hope of developing new medical compounds.

Opiate research could lead to better pain management

A UWindsor biochemistry professor is on a quest to discover new medicinal compounds by studying an enzyme occurring naturally in the poppy plant.

Kenneth Ng is working with a research team from the University of Calgary, where he is an adjunct professor, to better understand how natural opiates are formed. The team, which includes PhD student Sam Carr and a research group led by professor Peter Facchini, has narrowed its focus to one enzyme. This enzyme is responsible for the last step in the production of the opiate codeine and what the team learns about it could be used to develop new painkillers and other drugs.

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

Opiates such as codeine and morphine provide relief from pain, but come with multiple side effects. Long-term use can lead to physical dependency. Better pain medication could mean a better quality of life for people with painful, chronic conditions or short-term pain following injury or surgery.

Ng and Carr have imaged the structure of the enzyme they are studying using a beamline at the Canadian Macromolecular Crystallography Facility. The beamline, located at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan, uses the radiation generated from a circular particle accelerator called a synchrotron for the high-resolution study of crystalline structures. This structural analysis has offered clues on how to modify natural enzymes to create new drugs.

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

The project is being funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, through its Discovery Grants program.

—Sarah Sacheli