Prescription opioids are responsible for the overdose deaths of more than 200,000 Americans during the period from 1999 and 2016. Researchers have been working to find new options that will provide effective pain relief without the threat of addiction to replace them. A research team that has published has published the results of its work in Science Translational Medicine, claims to have found a new drug with these qualities.
New Drug Targets Opioid Receptors
The medication, which has been named, AT-121, works in the same way as traditional pain relievers do by targeting mu opioid receptors in the brain. The new medication also latches onto another group of receptors that block the brain’s addiction response, making it safe and non-addictive.
Traditional pain medications only bind to mu receptors; these are located on neurons located in the brain and the spinal cord. Once these receptors become activated, they trigger a series of chemical reactions that result in pain relief. Opioid pain medications also activate other proteins that trigger side effects like constipation, increasing tolerance over time and respiratory depression (slower, more shallow breathing).
Nociception receptors hinder some of the effects of mu receptors; specifically, they eliminate the sense of euphoria that leads to addiction. Activating both pathways in the brain seems to provide better pain relief while blocking the high that comes with opioid use.
AT-121 100 Times Much More Effective than Morphine
AT-121 was found to be 100 times better at reducing pain than morphine when tested in monkeys. The monkeys self-administered a variety of drugs, including oxycodone and cocaine, but they were not more likely to give themselves doses of AT-121 than a saline solution. This was taken as an indication of the new drug’s non-addictive property.
Other researchers have tried to find drugs that will work in this manner. Some of them have tried to change the chemical structure of oxycodone so that it has a time-released formula, while others are working on drugs that don’t have side effects like depressed breathing. Most of them still produce a mild sense of euphoria among users that could still result in an addiction.
The researchers hope to perform more studies to determine the best formulation and dose of the drug before moving on to human clinical trials. It may take another two or three years to get to that point, since this is a completely new chemical.