Merck buys pain relief technology from BYU

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    By Mark Nolte

    Pharmaceutical giant Merck and Co., Inc. recently contracted with BYU to license patent-pending pain relievers and to fund BYU”s pain research for two and a half more years.

    Daniel Simmons, of BYU”s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and his colleagues discovered the pain-causing enzyme, COX-2, in 1991. Then in fall 2001, Simmons” lab discovered another enzyme, COX-3, the enzyme pain relievers like Tylenol attack.

    Merck”s licensing of Simmons” work means BYU will receive royalties for potential pain-relieving products that stem from Simmons” research.

    “There are all kinds of diseases, but pain is a very important part (of each one),” said Yibing Xu, 26, a graduate student from Beijing, who works in Simmons” lab. “Most people go to the hospital because they feel uncomfortable. So pain is a crucial thing.”

    COX-2 and COX-3 added to scientists” understanding of COX-1, the first pain-causing enzyme discovered 30 years ago.

    Understanding how enzymes, like COX-2, produce pain-causing chemicals enables scientists to better treat specific pain without inducing side effects.

    Celebrex, a drug that reduces arthritis pain, is an example of how controlling different COX enzymes can benefit patients.

    Both COX 1 and 2 make pain-causing chemicals called prostaglandins that disturb joints in the human body. Celebrex inhibits COX-2”s ability to make these chemicals while it allows COX-1 to function normally. This is important because COX-1 also enables stomachs to produce the gastric juices necessary for digestion.

    Former drugs did not cater to the individual nature of the COX 1 and 2 enzymes. Instead, the drugs blocked both enzymes and caused stomach discomfort.

    “That is the hope, that these discoveries help produce the drugs that don”t have the side effects,” said Joshua Tomsik, 23, a senior from Orem, majoring in Asian studies. Tomsik helped in the COX-3 enzyme discovery.

    Tomsik said enzyme research answers some questions, but also leads to many more.

    Simmons said Merck”s funding of enzyme research is the most important aspect of the Merck-BYU agreement.

    Merck”s funding will be put to good use as Tomsik, Xu and Simmons” eight other lab assistants are currently searching for more pain-causing enzymes.

    Xu said he is trying to understand PCOX-1, a possible pain-causing enzyme found in the brain and other organs.

    “I am very interested in pain because in China I have seen how people suffer from pain,” Xu said. Approximately 50 percent of the people in his hometown appear to suffer from arthritic pain, he said.

    Currently, Xu and his colleagues are interested in the chemical products of PCOX-1 that cause pain and inflammation.

    Enzymes are like little machines that take specific materials and make products. The COX and PCOX enzymes take materials around them and make chemicals that are responsible for pain.

    Once the researchers find clues that PCOX-1 is producing pain-causing chemicals they can focus on the materials PCOX-1 uses to manufacture the chemical, Xu said.

    By blocking the enzyme”s ability to manufacture the chemical, scientists can inhibit the production of pain.

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