Dr Bronwyn Kivell, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, is screening a number of anti-addiction compounds that may ultimately form the basis of medications that help reduce cravings and prevent relapses for people addicted to psychostimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine.
Collaborating with a medicinal chemist at the University of Kansas in the United States along with her Victoria University colleague Professor Susan Schenk, Dr Kivell is investigating ways of targeting a protein in the brain, called the kappa opioid receptor, which can alter a person’s perception of mood, reward and pain.
The researchers are focused on a Mexican herb called salvia divinorum, also known as Mexican or Tijuana tripping weed, a powerful hallucinogen that has been chewed by Mexican Indians for centuries.
Most hallucinogenic substances affect serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the body that influences people’s sense of well-being, but Dr Kivell says salvia is different.
“It has a unique structure and contains compounds that we think could have anti-addictive properties.”
The compounds are being developed at the University of Kansas and tested at Victoria University.
A usual problem with compounds that target kappa opioid receptors, says Dr Kivell, is their tendency to have extreme side effects such as nausea and depression.
“However, some of those we are testing have much milder side effects.”
Another strand of Dr Kivell’s research targets more effective therapies to help people stop smoking. She says while nicotine is the major addictive component in cigarettes, there are many other things in cigarette smoke that contribute to addiction.
Her research, being carried out with Crown Research Institute ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research), is studying the role of a number of minor tobacco alkaloids.