This Chemical Is So Hot It Destroys Nerve Endings—in a Good Way

In Morocco there grows a cactus-like plant that’s so hot, I have to insist that the next few sentences aren’t hyperbole. On the Scoville Scale of hotness, its active ingredient, resiniferatoxin, clocks in at 16 billion units. That’s 10,000 times hotter than the Carolina reaper, the world’s hottest pepper, and 45,000 times hotter than the hottest of habaneros, and 4.5 million times hotter than a piddling little jalapeno. Euphorbia resinifera, aka the resin spurge, is not to be eaten. Just to be safe, you probably shouldn’t even look at it.

But while that toxicity will lay up any mammal dumb enough to chew on the resin spurge, resiniferatoxin has also emerged as a promising painkiller. Inject RTX, as it’s known, into an aching joint, and it’ll actually destroy the nerve endings that signal pain. Which means medicine could soon get a new tool to help free us from the grasp of opioids.

The human body is loaded with different kinds of sensory neurons. Some flavors respond to light touch, others signal joint position, yet others respond only to stimuli like tissue injury and burns. RTX isn’t going to destroy the endings of all these neurons willy-nilly. Instead, it binds to a major molecule in specifically pain-sensing nerve endings, called TRPV1 (pronounced TRIP-vee one).

This TRPV1 receptor normally responds to temperature. But it also responds to a family of molecules called pungents, which includes capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot pepper. “So when you put hot pepper on your tongue and it feels like it’s burning, it’s not because your tongue is on fire,” says Tony Yaksh, an anesthesiologist and pharmacologist at UC San Diego who’s studied RTX. “It’s simply activating the same sensory axons that would have been activated if your tongue had been on fire.”

So if you wanted to treat knee pain, you could directly inject RTX into the knee tissue. You’d anesthetize the patient first, of course, since the resulting pain would be intense. But after a few hours, that pain wears off, and you end up with a knee that’s desensitized to pain.

Researchers have already done this with dogs. “It is profoundly effective there, and lasts much, much longer than I might have expected, maybe a median of 5 months before the owners of the dogs asked for reinjection,” says Michael Iadarola, who’s studying RTX at the National Institutes of Health. “The animals went from basically limping to running around.” One dog even went 18 months before its owners noticed the pain had returned.

That’s a very targeted application, but what about more widespread pain? Cancer patients, for instance, can live in agony through their end-of-life care. Here, too, RTX might work as a powerful painkiller. In fact, the NIH is in the midst of trials with bone cancer patients.

RTX’s promise lies in its specificity. Think of it like a sniper rifle for pain, whereas opioids are more like hand grenades. Opioids target receptors all over the body, not a specific kind of sensory neuron. “That’s why when you give it to somebody, you get problems with constipation, sedation, they can have respiratory depression,” says Mannes.

That and you have to take opioids constantly, but not so with RTX. “You give it once and it should last for an extended period of time because it is destroying the fibers,” says Mannes. “But the other thing with this to remember is there’s no reinforcement. There’s no high associated with it, there’s no addiction potential whatsoever.”

Read the complete article on Wired here.





Roast potatoes and toast that’s a bit too brown may cause cancer, say authorities

Eating a lot of toast that’s a bit too brown could increase the risk of developing cancer, says the Food Standards Agency. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Eating a lot of toast that’s a bit too brown could increase the risk of developing cancer, says the Food Standards Agency. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Eating potato chips, well-browned roast potatoes and toast that is more than lightly grilled can increase the risk of cancer, according to a public health campaign urging people to change their eating and cooking habits.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK says people are consuming too much acrylamide, a chemical produced naturally as a result of cooking starchy foods at high temperatures.

Acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals and while it has not been conclusively produced to have the same effect in humans, the scientific consensus is that it is likely to do so.

The FSA insists that it does not want to scare anyone and would not describe the risk as significant but nevertheless said it is one that most people can readily reduce.

“We’re not saying avoid particular foods or groups of foods but vary your diet so you smooth out your risk. We are not saying to people to worry about the occasional piece of food or meal that’s overcooked. This is about managing risk across your lifetime.”

The warning relates to foods that are high in starch, with potatoes, including sweet potatoes, the biggest staple affected. But it also covers other root vegetables, crackers, cereals, including cereal-based baby food, bread, biscuits and coffee. There is no safe threshold defined in humans but the FSA says research suggests people in all age groups are eating more than its experts are comfortable with and are unaware of the risks.

Cath Mulholland, a senior adviser at the FSA, said: “If you’re living on crisps (potato chips), burnt toast, whatever, that’s going to be more risky than a healthy diet. It’s not a high level of risk but it’s higher than is comfortable.”

People are also being advised to eat a varied diet, carefully follow cooking instructions and not to keep raw potatoes in the fridge if they intend to roast or fry them as this can increase acrylamide levels. Instead, raw potatoes should be stored in a dark, cool temperature above 6C.

The potentially carcinogenic nature of acrylamide in food was first highlighted by a Swedish study in 2002. It differs from warnings relating to barbecuing meat, which are concerned with another substance called benzopyrene.

You may read the complete article on The Guardian here.




Ethanol in cars causing cancers?

Is ethanol added to gasoline causing cancers?

From an article in the Economist.

If 36 billion gallons of ethanol are to be produced from corn, as mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, America will be diverting all its current field-corn capacity to ethanol production by 2022.

To meet the needs for just domestic animal feed, as well as ethanol production, farmers will then have to devote additional acreage normally reserved for food crops to growing yet more field corn. Whether mandated or not, market forces will impel them to do so.

After tetra-ethyl lead was banned from petrol for health reasons in the 1990s, the octane-boosting additive of choice was methyl tertiary-butyl ether. But MBTE was later found to have its own problems (it contaminated drinking water supplies), and was replaced with ethanol. Since then, ethanol has been added to petrol in increasing quantities—not for health, environmental or performance reasons, but solely to fulfill the mandated requirements set by the politically charged RFS programme.

While the ethanol added to petrol helps the air-fuel mixture in the engine burn smoothly rather than explode prematurely (ie, “knock”) when under heavy load, it does not give the fuel more punch. In fact, the consensus is that motorists get 5-10% fewer miles to the gallon from petrol containing 10% ethanol (E10) compared with pure petrol. They do 25-30% worse when switching from E10 to E85.

The ethanol lobby plays up the fact that ethanol produces fewer harmful emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter than either petrol or diesel. That is all true. But what is rarely mentioned is that, when burned in a car engine, ethanol produces significantly larger quantities of formaldehyde and related compounds such as acetaldehyde.

The United States government has declared formaldehyde a carcinogen, and lists acetaldehyde as a probable carcinogen. Such compounds are also adept at triggering photochemical reactions. As such, they generate greater amounts of ground-level ozone. Overall, an ethanol exhaust produces over twice as much ozone as a petrol engine’s. That means more smog. So much so that the California Air Resources Board—ever concerned about the millions of vehicles in the Los Angeles basin, with its pollution-trapping inversion layer—has set special emission standards for formaldehyde and its relatives alongside those for nitrogen oxides and other pollutants.

Read more of this Economist article here.