Researchers have created a new strategy that could serve as a powerful tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic. In a study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, researchers engineered cells that target pain receptors and trigger an aroma that relieves pain.

Martin Fussenegger, Ph.D., lead author and professor at ETH Zurich, and his team of researchers created “microencapsulated human designer cells” that produce Huwentoxin-IV, an analgesic peptide that shuts down Nav1.7, a pain-inducing sodium channel. Then, they altered an olfactory receptor, OR1A1, that is responsive to R-carvone, a chemical that smells like spearmint.

In other words, in this mechanism, the smell of spearmint triggers the production of Huwentoxin-IV, which eliminates pain.

These “AromaCells” were tested in mouse models, and the results suggest that the mice experienced lasting pain relief when exposed to spearmint. It also bypasses one of the biggest, if not the biggest, problems associated with pain treatment.

“The major problem of pain treatment is addiction [to things like morphine, etc.],” Fussenegger said in an interview with MD Magazine. “More and more people suffer from pain, and there are no new treatment strategies. Our strategy pioneers a new concept in this sector, which has not seen much progress in the past.”

Fussenegger and his team made it a point to test for signs of addiction in mice under the spearmint model and found none. However, withdrawal symptoms were present among mice who were treated for pain with morphine and tramadol.

With the United States in the midst of a public health crisis, this study draws attention to an unheard of approach to pain management. This mechanism targets pain without producing the pleasurable, euphoric sensations prescription opioids induce. Although this strategy is nascent, it’s still a significant advancement in chronic pain management.

Until pain treatment alternatives like Fussenegger’s become universal, Guardian Recovery Network will be actively working to combat the opioid epidemic. Our specialized services and expert clinical and medical staff have helped hundreds of people overcome opioid addiction and achieve permanent, lasting recovery. For more information about how our addiction treatment services can help you or someone you care about, contact a Guardian Recovery Specialist at 877.831.2533.