Synthetic ‘love drug’ could treat abdominal pain

"This molecule acts on oxytocin nerve receptors in the bowel, which display increased sensitivity in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome," says Paul Alewood. (Credit: "abdominal pain" via Shutterstock)

Oxytocin, the hormone that induces labor and encourages social bonding, could hold the key to treating chronic abdominal pain, say researchers.

The researchers have developed a version of the hormone oxytocin to treat chronic abdominal pain associated with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

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Oxytocin is sometimes called “the love drug” for its ability to enhance social interactions including maternal behavior, partnership, and bonding.

Professor Paul Alewood from the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience says the molecule they had developed—a version of oxytocin with improved stability—showed significant potential in alleviating abdominal pain.

“It can potentially survive in the digestive tract until it reaches the gut,” he says.

“This molecule acts on oxytocin nerve receptors in the bowel, which display increased sensitivity in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.”

Alewood says it had no effect on healthy gut tissue, which was an important advantage in drug development, in which it is crucial to minimize side effects.

Chronic abdominal pain is a major health problem, with irritable bowel syndrome alone affecting around 11 percent of the Western population.

Despite the high number of sufferers, there are currently no drugs that directly treat abdominal pain.

Alewood and co-lead author Stuart Brierley of the University of Adelaide report their findings in Nature Communications. The National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council supported the work.

Source: University of Queensland