Innovation is often found in the most unexpected places. Sometimes opportunities are easy to miss right in front of us. Many profitable innovations have resulted from finding new uses for things that have long been known. Sometimes the key is just looking beyond our pre-determined expectations to realize the innovative potential of the things we encounter every day.
An example is capsaicin. Once only known as a substance in chili peppers that adds spice to food, innovative thinking across industries has leveraged its unique properties in products such as topical pain relievers, animal repellents, cosmetics and more.
Capsaicin - A spicy molecule still finding new uses
This month, many will celebrate Cinco de Mayo by eating food flavored with chili peppers. From its origins in Mexico 6,000 years ago, the domesticated Capsicum annuum plant has been transformed into a wide variety of cultivars, each producing unique chili pepper fruit, including poblano, jalapeño, serrano, de árbol, piquín and habanero, to name a few.
Beyond their physical appearance, chili peppers are described by their pungent taste. Capsaicin, one of the key active ingredients that give chili peppers their spice was first isolated in 1816 and synthesized in 1930. Capsaicin is well characterized in the scientific literature and is assigned CAS Registry Number® 404-86-4.
The spiciness of a chili pepper is directly related to the concentration of capsaicin and related capsaicinoid substances. Capsaicin produces a burning sensation by exciting heat- and pain-related sensory neurons. The magnitude of this effect, or the spiciness of a chili pepper, is commonly measured on the Scoville scale. For example, the capsaicin-free bell pepper has zero Scoville heat units (SHUs), whereas cultivars of the very spicy habanero pepper have 100,000–350,000 SHUs.
With decades of research to guide the way, a broad range of industries have uncovered novel ways to capitalize on the unique biological effects of capsaicin. A survey of the patent landscape since 2000 shows the top fields where organizations have uncovered new uses for capsaicin.
From kitchen counter to medicine cabinet
Beyond its culinary contributions, capsaicin has been widely studied for its medical applications. Since 2000, nearly 3,500 capsaicin-related journal articles and patent applications have focused on the use of capsaicin in pharmaceuticals, including research supporting claims of an analgesic effect when applied to the skin.
This seemingly contradictory effect is related to the ability of capsaicin, when applied to the skin over time, to eventually inhibit the pain response in the very same nerve fibers that it initially stimulated to cause pain. Armed with an understanding of this mechanism of action, researchers continue to develop innovative new applications of capsaicin to treat various conditions, from arthritis to backaches. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of capsaicin in a transdermal patch, Qutenza, for the management of neuropathic pain associated with shingles.
Evolutionary advantage turned garden godsend
Capsaicin production in chili peppers is thought to provide a survival advantage by deterring consumption by certain animals. By producing the pungent-tasting capsaicin, which targets taste receptors found only in mammals, the chili pepper selects for seed dispersal by non-mammalian animals, such as birds.
Leveraging this evolutionary advantage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture registered a dog-attack repellent with capsaicin as the active ingredient for the first time in 1962. Today, capsaicin’s ability to selectively cause pain in mammals is understood at a molecular level, and nearly 15% of all capsaicin-related patent applications published since 2000 specify its use as a pest repellent.
Unlock innovation by exploring the world’s largest chemistry collection
This year on Cinco de Mayo, as you dip your chip into salsa, consider what other innovation opportunities may be hiding right under your nose. With hundreds of millions of substances in the CAS content collection, as well as the related literature, reactions, properties and more, the possibilities are endless. Which one will inspire your organization’s next innovative new product?
Learn more about how CAS solutions, such as SciFindern, can connect you to the latest published discoveries and help you find innovation opportunities across industries.
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