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Could this plant extract help fight the opioid epidemic?

OxyContin has faced thousands of lawsuits seeking to hold it accountable for the opioid crisis.
(Toby Talbot / Associated Press)

As the opioid epidemic continues to claim lives, UC Irvine researchers have identified a plant extract that may help fight opiate addiction.

The pandemic has further worsened the opioid crisis, with more people dying from overdoses. The number of opioid overdose deaths has more than doubled in Orange County over the last decade.

According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, 234 residents died from opioid overdoses in 2011, compared to 499 in 2020. A huge contributor to the number of opioid deaths is the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, which accounted for 381 of the deaths last year. The Orange County coroner did not test for fentanyl or other synthetic opioid types in 2010, said Dr. Curtis Condon, research manager at the agency.

But YHS, the extract of the plant Corydalis yanhusuo, could play a role in fighting the epidemic, allowing those who are addicted to opioids to potentially ween themselves off the drugs. According to UC Irvine, YHS has been used as a pain reliever in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and is available in specialty stores.

Olivier Civelli, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UCI and an author of a study of YHS, said that the plant extract reduces pain and the development of opioid tolerance. Specifically, researchers found that when YHS was administered with morphine, it inhibited dependence, addiction and tolerance in animals.

“When people take an opioid, especially morphine, but all the opioids like oxycodone and others that are on the market these days, people lose the effectiveness of the opiate ... they need to take more and more and more,” Civelli said over the phone. “That is drastic because that is what leads people to take more and more and risk overdose.”

Civelli said researchers are now trying to determine how the extract blocks morphine tolerance. Civelli is also hoping that further research will be done on how the drug acts when ingested by humans.

“I hope that it will interest people to try to do clinical trials,” Civelli said.

More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, nearly 70,000 due to opioids. According to the California Department of Health Care Services, fentanyl accounted for more than a third of overdose deaths between July 2019 and July 2020. Overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 2018. In particular, the agency noted that homeless populations are adversely impacted by the rise of fentanyl.

More homeless people died in Orange County in 2020 than any other year. Opioids, particularly fentanyl, were responsible for many homeless overdoses in Orange County. Of the 330 deaths, at least 90 were due to drug overdoses, according to data from the coroner’s office.

The homeless had few places to turn over the past year and a half as the pandemic has gripped down on the county, as shelters faced outbreaks and resources were scarce.

“A lot of services and a lot of the resources that they had before were just completely wiped out single-handedly by COVID,” homeless advocate Tim Houchen said. “I know that we have a really big problem, nationwide, not just among homeless people, with opioids, particularly fentanyl. And I think a lot of these deaths, probably are resulting from that.”

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