Scientists Looking to Synthesize Salvia for Medicine

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Salvia is a decently well-known hallucinogen that’s gained some popularity in recent years, mostly because it’s one of the few drugs the US hasn’t made significant efforts to regulate. That lack of regulation, though, has some scientists eager to see what kinds of research they can do with the plant.

The past few years have seen a tremendous uptick in the number of researchers turning to some older drugs like shrooms and molly for treating various kinds of psychological problems, namely post-traumatic stress and fear of impending death for terminally ill patients. While salvia has certainly been looked at for a few of these (as well as treating drug addiction), now it’s also in testing for use as an opiate-adjacent painkiller without the deadly overdose potential.

Opiate overdoses are now one of the leading causes of death among younger Americans. Abuse of prescription painkillers has led a generation of youth down a dark and lethal path.

In a new paper, a team of researchers from Scripps Research Institute details their synthesis of a slightly different version of Salvinorin A — the psycho-active chemical found in the salvia plant. The paper states that, until now, the “modification of SalA has been complicated by its instability and… complex architecture.” With a new 10-step process, detailed in the paper, though, the team was able to synthesize large quantities of SalA that was stable and could still act on the opioid receptors in the nervous system, with relatively low potential for abuse and addiction. More importantly, the new process allows scientists greater flexibility to modify the molecule even further, “[opening] up the SalA scaffold to deep-seated property modification.”

If these results hold up, this could be a major development in the fight against opiate abuse. Other drugs like weed, though, have shown some incredible potential for opiate addiction treatment on their own. And, given how easy and readily available it is and how simple it would be to legalize the drug — without waiting years and years for research and development of new substances — it may be a moot point. Regardless, I gotta say, it’s weird to think that the hippies I saw around the neighborhood growing up may have been right about using hallucinogens and weed to treat complex medical problems. Something about that just feels weird. Whatever works, I guess.

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