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A new study shows that mice — and probably humans — mammals have the onboard capacity to make their own painkillers.
It's unclear why the body does this, or where in the body it takes place, but the research team led by Meinhart Zenk, a biochemist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, injected a mouse over the course of four days with a chemical called tetrahydropapaveroline, or THP.
The compound is found naturally in human brain cells and is one of the chemicals that is altered to build morphine in plants. Using a supersensitive mass spectrometry instrument that precisely elucidates a molecule's chemical composition, the researchers found that the mouse metabolized most of the THP into several different chemicals including salutaridine. In morphine-producing poppy plants salutaridine is then converted to thebaine, which undergoes further reactions to become morphine. The researchers show that mice can also do that chemical conversion, as well as others needed to generate morphine.