Photopharmacology is based on the development of light-sensitive drugs that can be activated where, when, and with the desired intensity.


Photopharmacology is an emerging area of ​​science based on the development of photosensitive drugs, in other words, drugs that activable with light. This innovative technology combines drugs with molecules that act as switches and modify the structure, and therefore the biological activity, with light. This modulation enables the drugs to be activated at the desired place, time, and intensity, focusing their action and avoiding side effects due to their unwanted activity on other tissues.

The research group in Neuropharmacology and Pain of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Institute of Neurosciences (UBNeuro) of the University of Barcelona (UB), led by Dr. Francisco Ciruela, has just presented a photoactivatable derivative of morphine in collaboration to MCS research group led by Dr. Amadeu Llebaria from Advanced Chemistry Institute of Catalona (IQAC-CSIC). Also, IDIBELL has developed a photogrug to treat psoriasis locally in collaboration to Prof. Kenneth Jacobson (NIDDK, NIH, Bethesda, USA), and an adenosine fotoactivable that permits the pain transmission study in collaboration to Prof. Dirk Trauner de la New York University.

A non-addictive morphine

Morphine, and the other derivatives of opiates, are currently the most widely used treatments to alleviate pain. Although these are very effective drugs, most have serious side effects such as addiction and dependence. In addition, patients can develop tolerance to their analgesic effects, forcing an increase in the dose. In the United States, it is estimated that each year more than 70.000 people die as a result of an opioid overdose, 30% of patients who are prescribed opiates do not take them in the appropriate guidelines, this makes that 10 % of patients end up developing drug dependence.

Dr. Ciruela’s team, in collaboration with Dr. Amadeu Llebaria (IQAC-CSIC, Barcelona), has designed, synthesized, and characterized a photosensitive derivative of morphine that can be activated locally through light with great precision. This morphine has been shown to have an analgesic effect in mice. Additionally, the remote and local activation of this compound has been shown to prevent tolerance to the analgesic effect and the appearance of drug dependence. The work has been published in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

Photopharmacology has allowed us to create an opiate-based therapy with an optimal risk-benefit ratio“, says Dr. Ciruela, “photosensitive morphine has proven the same analgesic efficacy than the original, but avoiding the addition, tolerance, and general side effects that are often caused by opiate derivatives“.


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IDIBELL Communication

IQAC-CSIC Communication