Scientists developing an opioid painkiller that doesn't cause addiction
An international research effort has made some discoveries about opioids and the brain that could guide creation of an effective painkiller that isn't addictive.

Rick Docksai | Apr 19, 2018

Chronic-pain patients could soon get effective opioid-based pain relief with scarcely any risk of addiction, according to a team of international researchers. The 24-person team wrote in a report published Thursday in the journal Cell that they have made several key discoveries about brain cells and ways to customize an opioid painkiller that will affect the right cells in the right way so that it will jumpstart pain relief and not addiction activity.

"We have a template for designing new types of pain medications that have no disruptive side effects for patients and would reduce the burden that opioid addiction has placed on society," said Vsevolod Katritch, a University of South Carolina (USC) biophysicist and computational biologist participating in the research.

Katritch and two USC colleagues created new techniques for imaging the opioid receptors, which dot the surfaces of brain cells' membranes. Opioid drugs work by binding to these receptors, but binding with certain receptors causes reactions that result in unpleasant side effects for the patient, one of which is chemical dependency. These molecular bonds are also the source of the nausea, numbness, anxiety, hallucinations, and respiratory disorders that opioid-taking patients may suffer.

The USC researchers' enhanced imaging techniques enabled more-precise modeling of a particular receptor, kappa opioid receptor, which is critical to pain relief and has nothing to do with the bad side effects.

Other researchers in the international team discovered how to make an opioid-based compound that activates only this receptorand not other receptors. The researchers hope that a future drug based on this compound could help quell the rising tide of opioid addiction in the United States and provide safe pain relief for consumers everywhere.


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