For migraines, a spicy solution is explored

Ryan Flinn / Bloomberg News /

Published Apr 29, 2013 at 05:00AM

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 before they attack.

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 create medicines for the more than 36 million Americans who suffer from 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 effects people really in the prime of their lives,” Rob Lenz, who is leading Amgen's migraine drug development, said in an interview. Still, no drugs have been “developed specifically for the treatment of migraines,” he 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 create drugs that cut off developing 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.

Amgen's AMG 334 and Alder's ALD 403 are being tested in the second of three clinical trials typically required for U.S. regulatory approval.

“We'll have data on this before the year is out,” Randall Schatzman, chief executive officer of closely held Alder, based in Bothell, Wash., said in an interview.