Boston Children’s Researcher Develops An Algae Anesthetic

An new anesthetic made from algae could help eliminate the negative side effects of pain management.

A component made from algae cells, like these, could revolutionize pain management. Image via Shutterstock.

An anesthetic made from algae cells, like these, could revolutionize pain management. Algae Image via Shutterstock.

Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered a way to provide improved pain relieving methods by using an anesthetic made from algae molecules. The new form of pain management would help patients to avoid the negative side effects that can often come along with post-surgical pain medication.

Dr. Charles Berde, the chief surgeon in Boston Children’s Division of Pain Management and the leader of the study, has made it his personal mission to improve pain control after surgery. Currently, local anesthesia is often administered during surgery and allows for some pain control after the procedure, but it usually lasts for only 10 hours. This means that doctors are forced to rely on medications like Morphine, Percocet, and other opiate-based anesthetics to control pain after local anesthesia wears off. And as you may know, those opiate-based anesthetics often come hand in hand with negative side effects like nausea, sedation, shallow breathing, and constipation.

“I got the idea that perhaps you could make a local anesthetic that you could inject once, but would give you relief for two or three days,” Berde says. “This would be great in a place like Boston, but even better in other countries where there is often one nurse taking care of 30 patients. If a soldier has a traumatic leg injury and needs an amputation, you could numb the two primary nerves in his leg and take away the pain of the amputation in the field, plus give him days of relief during transport, too.”

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Berde conducted animal-based research with different types of molecules that he knew could cause numbness. But then he came across the research of Dr. Alberto Rodriguez-Navarro from Padre Hurtado Hospital in Santiago, Chile. Rodriguez-Navarro had been studying algae molecules associated with red tide, a phenomenon that involves an algal bloom that turns red in color. Study regulations are different in Chile, so Rodriquez-Navarro had been able to conduct human trials using the molecules, and had proven that the molecules could cause skin numbness. Berde says that Rodriquez-Navarro used a double-blind study for patients who had undergone gall bladder removals, demonstrating that the individuals who received treatment using algae-based molecules had better pain scores, faster recovery times, and better functionality after surgery.

“This was impressive,” Berde says. “He chose to contact us, so we met and planned to bring this research to Boston Children’s. The tests he had done were affective in Chile, but in order to bring them to FDA standards, we are now in the process of completing a Phase 1 clinical trial with healthy volunteers.”

During Phase 1 of the clinical trial, which is currently underway, Berde is testing the algae molecules on healthy individuals ages of 18 to 35. The subjects are given an injection of the algae molecules, which numb the skin, on the backs of their calves. Then, through a computer program that administers heating, cooling, and vibration sensations to the numbed spot, the subjects are able to gage their levels of numbness. “You don’t have to do anything painful to test numbness,” Berde says. “We just need to see how much of this molecule we should be using for pain reduction.”

Why use this specific molecule to control pain? Berde explains that the cynobacteria, which is found in Chile in both salt and fresh water, is a photosynthetic material. That means that it is produced naturally using sun and carbon dioxide, and is less costly. “There are some things that nature produces better than organic chemists,” Berde says. “Nature is often a better factory.” Still, Berde and his colleagues had to prove that the molecules were pure and safe for human subjects before they began their research.

Berde hopes to finish phase one of the clinical trial soon. He then plans to move into more advanced stages of testing which would allow him to try the new pain medication on sick patients after they have undergone surgical procedures. The hardest part of the process, he says, will be convincing drug companies to take the new substance and push it into the market. “The path to development is more straight forward than other drugs, like drugs for cancer, schizophrenia, or depression. But its still going to be a number of years before this actually makes it into the market,” Berde says. “The treatment could make surgical procedures less painful and more convenient, though. If a woman has a C- section during childbirth, these molecules could be injected into the layers of her body before the surgeon closes. It would allow for days of pain reduction while she cares for her child. She would need less medication.”