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What is Noscapine?

By T. Broderick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Noscapine is a medicinal compound found in plants of the poppy family. Unlike morphine, another compound derived from poppy plants, is not a pain killer nor is it addictive. The compound is used as a cough suppressant in different over-the-counter medications. Recent research has shown that the compound has the ability to treat cancer. Another benefit is that measuring the levels of the compound in illegal opioid drugs can indicate where those drugs were produced.

Along with heroin, codeine and morphine, noscapine was isolated in the early 19th century as medical science discovered the great medicinal properties found in opium poppies and other members of the poppy family. Unlike the other alkaloid compounds the plant produced, noscapine stood apart for two reasons. The first was the the compound had no affect on pain; it was an antitussive, or cough suppressant. The second was that the compound was not physiologically addictive. For these two reasons, the compound never became a controlled substance.

Noscapine is available over the counter in many countries, a key ingredient in cold and flu medication. This easy availability has increased instances of abuse. Taken in large quantities, the compound causes a condition similar to drunkenness. As the chances of overdose are statistically insignificant, there is no reform movement to have the compound listed as a controlled substance.

Recent research has shown that noscapine has the ability to fight cancer and stroke. In a 2003 study published in Iran, noscapine had the ability to slow cancer cell division. These results were tested in patients with prostate cancer. Other research presented evidence that when a patient was administered the compound immediately after a stroke, blood flow to the brain increased and less damage incurred as a result of the stroke. Even after 170 years, science is still finding uses for this compound.

As noscapine does not break down in the process of making heroin, the compound is an important tool in battling illegal drugs. After the seizure of illegal drugs, testing for noscapine levels can indicate the region where the original poppies were grown. This information can lead law enforcement agents to production facilities and/or organized crime elements involved in drug distribution. The same testing method is also valuable for monitoring drug addicts who became addicted through prescription medication and later began taking illegal drugs to feed their addiction. Presence of the compound in a patient's bloodstream indicates that he or she is taking illegally obtained drugs rather than a prescribed painkiller.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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