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Chili peppers may prove helpful in treating migraine headaches

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:48 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Chili peppers and migraines have traits in common — a fact scientists are exploiting to develop drugs capable of preventing the debilitating headache's painful symptoms.

The link between how skin reacts when rubbed with chili oil and what happens in the brain during a migraine has attracted the world's largest biotechnology company, Amgen Inc., and other companies seeking to formulate medicines for the more than 36 million Americans who have migraines.

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness and sensitivity to touch, yet treatment options are limited. Some pharmaceutical companies that have tried recently to develop migraine therapies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Merck & Co., have abandoned their efforts, while the few drugs on the market are ineffective for many people and carry the danger of serious side effects for those at risk of heat attack or stroke.

“Migraines are an extremely common disorder, and it affects people really in the prime of their lives,” said Rob Lenz, who is leading Amgen's migraine drug development.

Still, no drugs have been “developed specifically for the treatment of migraines,” Lenz said. “They were developed as anti-epileptics, or blood pressure-lowering agents.”

That may soon change. Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and other biotechnology companies such as Alder Biopharmaceuticals Inc., Arteaus Therapeutics, and Labrys Biologics Inc. are targeting a chemical released during a migraine that carries a “pain” signal from nerve to nerve. By blocking a receptor from receiving the message, these companies aim to develop drugs that cut off migraines before symptoms start.

Similar pain signal transmission occurs when chili oil touches the skin. In that situation, the capsaicin in the pepper causes the body to release calcitonin gene-related peptides, or CGRP, leading to an increase in blood flow to the affected area.

To show the Amgen drug works, researchers injected it under the skin of patients who had chili oil on their skin. The therapy blocked the CGRP that causes increased blood flow.

“It sounds simple, but it's important — it tells us that our drug is getting into the body in relative concentrations that are generally well tolerated and that block CGRP,” Lenz said.

The new class of drugs under development are biologics, often delivered by injection, and are more complex, targeted and longer-lasting in the body than the earlier failed attempts, Lenz said.

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