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Researchers develop groundbreaking swap for harmful ingredient in common pain killers: 'Can be used in a wide range of applications'

The goal is to create a cleaner treatment option.

Medicines with a substance found in pine trees

Photo Credit: iStock

A new, groundbreaking medicine ingredient coming out of England may not be sugar, but Mary Poppins would likely agree that it's better than the crude oil currently being used. 

Researchers at the University of Bath are replacing oily chemical components used to help make common over-the-counter medicines with a substance found in pine trees. The goal at Bath is to switch out oil with a "sustainable biorefinery approach." 

It's fascinating news that should help the medicine go down a little better for us all. It's also better medicine for the planet, as oil refineries spout out 527,000 tons of air pollution each year, according to an article in ScienceDirect. 

Crude is used to help make plastics, clothing, gum, and about 110,000 tons of the popular painkillers Ibuprofen and paracetamol (Tylenol) annually. These medicines are taken for common aches, pains, and headaches. 

"Using oil to make pharmaceuticals is unsustainable — not only is it contributing to rising CO2 emissions, but the price fluctuates dramatically as we are greatly dependent on the geopolitical stability of countries with large oil reserves, and it is only going to get more expensive," University of Bath chemistry research associate Dr. Josh Tibbetts said in a university report

The pine compound replacing the oil element is a biorenewable waste byproduct from the paper industry called beta-pinene. It's derived from turpentine

In the lab, the scientists use continuous flow reactors for production, providing for an "uninterrupted" process, according to the Bath team. This is more efficient than using a large reactor that makes separate batches, the experts reported

They have had success garnering other chemicals from turpentine that can be used to make beta-blockers, asthma inhaler medicine, and even perfume, according to the research report. 

Tibbetts touts the breakthrough as a way to create "a spectrum of valuable, sustainable chemicals that can be used in a wide range of applications." 

Most importantly, the process leaves oil in the ground. 

The Bath team conceded that the current process comes with a higher manufacturing cost, at least for now. But there's optimism that consumers may be open to paying a little more for medicine using renewable, plant-based ingredients, per the university article. 

The over-the-counter painkiller industry is large. Statista reported that Advil led name-brand sales in the U.S., at $449.5 million, in 2019. Private-label pain pills totaled about $1.18 billion. 

Those high sales are reflected in consumption. A 2018 NBC survey found that 15% of Americans were taking more than the dosage limit multiple days of the week to deal with pain. Overuse of certain types of painkillers can cause stomach bleeding and even heart attacks, according to the NBC story. 

The Bath experts will likely leave pain management to physicians. For now, the goal is to create a cleaner treatment option. 

"Instead of extracting more oil from the ground, we want to replace this in the future with a 'biorefinery' model," Tibbetts said.

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