An African plant used in traditional medicine for pain relief contains the same active ingredient as an artificial pain killer.

Together with scientists in Cameroon, France and Switzerland, Michel De Waard at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, collected extracts from the pincushion tree (Nauclea latifolia), separated compounds into groups on the basis of their mass and chemical properties, then tested each group in mice for its ability to relieve pain.

The team found an oily yellow compound in the most potent group and determined its chemical structure to be that of tramadol, which has been sold as a synthetic analgesic since the 1970s. The compound was detected only in the plant's roots — the same parts used in traditional remedies to treat pain. The researchers believe that this is the first time a widely prescribed synthetic drug has been found in a plant at clinically relevant concentrations.

Angew. Chem. (2013)