Scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) have completed two studies which show that Aspartame, a commonly available artificial sweetener found in diet soft drinks and other foods, functions effectively as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever in patients with osteoarthritis. The results of the findings were published today in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics (“Treatment of Osteoarthritis with Aspartame,” Allen B. Edmundson, Ph.D. and Carl V. Manion, M.D.).
“I was studying the X-ray crystallography binding of sweet-tasting compounds, including Aspartame, in antibodies at the time,” said Dr. Allen Edmundson, member and head of OMRF’s Crystallography Research Program. Edmundson happened upon the correlation when he noticed a marked decrease in the pain and stiffness in his arthritic knees, hips and feet after consuming approximately 72 ounces of diet cola in a three-hour period of time. Because of his knowledge of the chemical properties of Aspartame, Edmundson hypothesized that his pain relief might have been related to his ingestion of the sweetener in the soft drinks.
“This just made the correlation easier,” he said. “It was exhilarating to realize that such simple observations could be combined to provide the rationale for the relief of pain in humans.
Edmundson conducted some self-testing of his theory and discussed his observation with Dr. William G. Thurman, then OMRF president and currently president emeritus. Thurman directed Edmundson to Dr. Carl Manion, member and head of OMRF’s Clinical Pharmacology Research Program. Manion, a physician who conducts numerous studies for pharmaceutical companies, helped design a clinical trial for Edmundson’s Aspartame concept.
“We have the perfect environment for the test here at OMRF,” said Dr. J. Donald Capra, current president and scientific director of the foundation. “Our clinical pharmacology program is designed to do exactly what was needed for this study. The staff recruited participants, and this small but determined group conducted its own tests.”
“This was a case of the right people being in the right place at the right time,” said Manion. “Allen (Edmundson) is a good observer, which was particularly important in drawing this conclusion about Aspartame. We also asked the right question at the right time. this was a question which had never been asked about this compound before now.”
“Normal discoveries begin in laboratories where chemists or biochemists discover a compound, progress to animal testing, file a patent application and wait for clinical trials to be designed,” said Manion. “This, on the other hand, was an inverted discovery process. The compound was readily available and known to be safe, so we were able to begin our study with human subjects. It wasn’t until we started looking into Aspartame’s fever-reducing properties that we used an animal model.”
One trial involved 19 participants with osteoarthritis, which was evident from X-ray and presence of daily pain. These volunteers received a placebo, an 80 mg dosage or a 160 mg dosage of Aspartame. Pain assessment was conducted for three hours after administering the compound. Of those receiving Aspartame, pain after walking was decreased, distance walked in five minutes increased, the time needed to climb stairs decreased, and grip pain was decreased.
“This compound appears to have the same pain-relieving qualities as any of the NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which are commonly administered for relief of arthritis pain,” said Edmundson. “Aspartame is perfect for this purpose, because it is inexpensive, safe to use, and it lacks the side effects that many other drugs possess.”
There are many practical ways in which the use of Aspartame as a pain reliever could impact patient care. Aspartame appears to be quite effective when used in combination with smaller quantities of more potent pain-killers. Its use has allowed individual patients to decrease their se of opiates and other more expensive drugs, which can carry serious side effects, including severe stomach distress or chronic constipation.
Further, the study revealed that Aspartame functions effectively as an anticoagulant and a fever reducer.
“Its anticoagulant properties appear to be much like those of aspirin, but without stomach upset, so it may have a significant role in reducing cardiovascular morbidity,” said Manion.
In tests on rats, the animals were treated to induce a fever. When Aspartame was administered, the fever was reduced just as effectively as it would from treatment with NSAIDs.
Although these findings are exciting, both Edmundson and Manion caution individuals against self-treatment with Aspartame at this early stage.
“There is still a lot of testing to be done,” said Edmundson. “People should consult their personal physicians before arbitrarily taking Aspartame as a pain reliever, particularly if they are taking other medications. There are instances when Aspartame may actually interfere with treatment when used in combination with certain other drugs. The issues of proper dosage, duration of treatment and assessment of results are best left to medical professionals. One should contact his or her physician to see if Aspartame might benefit them personally.”
“This speaks to exactly what OMRF’s mission entails, which is helping people live longer, healthier lives,” said Manion. “To know that we can alleviate suffering from pain with a safe substance which is already available is just tremendous, and there is still a lot to discover here. We are very fortunate to have been able to make this observation.”
The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is an independent biomedical research institute dedicated to the search for better treatments and cures for human disease. Chartered in 1946, OMRF has earned international recognition for its research into cancer, heart disease, arthritis, lupus, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and others.