Euphorbium: modern research on its active principle, resiniferatoxin, revives an ancient medicine

Life Sci. 1997;60(10):681-96. doi: 10.1016/s0024-3205(96)00567-x.


Resiniferatoxin, an ultrapotent capsaicin analog present in the latex of Euphorbia resinifera, interacts at a specific membrane recognition site (referred to as the vanilloid receptor), expressed by primary sensory neurons mediating pain perception as well as neurogenic inflammation. Desensitization to resiniferatoxin is a promising approach to mitigate neuropathic pain and other pathological conditions in which sensory neuropeptides released from capsaicin-sensitive neurons play a crucial role. Clinical trials to evaluate the potential of topical resiniferatoxin treatment to relieve pain associated with diabetic polyneuropathy and postherpetic neuralgia are in progress. Though resiniferatoxin was isolated only two decades ago, the dried latex of Euphorbia resinifera, called Euphorbium, has been in medicinal use since the time of recorded history. This review highlights the most important events in the history of this ancient medicine, from the first written record of the therapeutic potential of Euphorbium (at the time of the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus) to the identification of its active principle as resiniferatoxin in 1975. A brief overview of the enormous contribution of resiniferatoxin to our current understanding of the anatomical localization, function, and pharmacology of vanilloid receptors is provided. Lastly, the mechanisms are summarized by which capsaicin and resiniferatoxin, despite sharing receptors, may have dissimilar biological actions.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics* / chemistry
  • Analgesics* / metabolism
  • Analgesics* / pharmacology
  • Analgesics* / therapeutic use
  • Animals
  • Capsaicin / analogs & derivatives*
  • Capsaicin / metabolism
  • Capsaicin / pharmacology
  • Diterpenes* / chemistry
  • Diterpenes* / metabolism
  • Diterpenes* / pharmacology
  • Diterpenes* / therapeutic use
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Neurons, Afferent / metabolism
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism
  • Plant Extracts / history
  • Plant Extracts / therapeutic use*
  • Plants, Medicinal*
  • Receptors, Drug / chemistry
  • Receptors, Drug / metabolism*


  • Analgesics
  • Diterpenes
  • Neuropeptides
  • Plant Extracts
  • Receptors, Drug
  • resiniferatoxin
  • Capsaicin