Researchers are racing to develop an alternative to prescription opioid painkillers that are just as effective at managing pain, though don’t come with dangerous side effects, including addiction.
As the opioid crisis continues to ravage whole communities and kill an estimated 115 people a day, the stakes are incredibly high.
Now, three scientists believe they’re on the cusp of a non-narcotic, non-addictive painkiller 50 times more powerful than morphine, a synthetic molecule called Blue-181.
How Does Blue-181 Treat Pain?
“It targets receptors in the spinal cord where you are able to reduce the perception of pain, without targeting the areas of the brain which leads to the addiction side effects,” Ajay Yekkirala, a Harvard-trained scientists, chief scientist and cofounder at Blue Therapeutics, told CBS News.
There are opioid receptors throughout the human body, but when it comes to managing widespread physical pain, the receptors in the central nervous system are the most efficient.
“For over a 100 years, [opioid receptors] remained a target,” biochemist Laura Bohn told The Scientist and added, “Therapeutically, it works.”
Unfortunately, opioid receptors in the central nervous system, while powerful at pain management, can also ignite reward centers in the brain that bring about a euphoric high that, for many, becomes addictive.
Blue Therapeutics molecule, Blue-181, however binds to central nervous system receptors that don’t cause a narcotic high. The result is a strong painkiller that’s unlikely to lead to abuse or dependence.
Approaches to Non-Narcotic and Non-Addictive Painkillers
Other biotech companies are working on their own versions of non-narcotic and non-addictive painkillers. Scientists have focused on three different approaches to creating these kinds of drugs. They include:
- Pain medications that target neural pathways involved in reducing pain, but avoid the brain’s reward centers and don’t get patients “high”
- Targeted drugs that localize opioid’s painkilling ability where the site of the pain actually is. In this scenario, acid from tissue inflammation at the injured body part would activate the painkiller and remain in that area without activating pathways in the central nervous system
- A combination of the two, like Blue-181, targets multiple receptors at once with the goal of avoiding reward centers in the brain, which reduces the likelihood of unwanted side effects, such as dependency
What are the Downsides?
The downside to this innovation in the treatment of acute and chronic pain is that it’s not quite ready for the general public yet. Researchers also admit that, at least for now, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all pill because patients respond to medications differently.
Even if opioids are still the most effective way to treat pain, they come with the risk of addiction.
As a result, a growing number of patients have turned to alternative methods of pain management that don’t involve prescription painkillers. The options range from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to exercise and even meditation.
Backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DOD) with more than $2 million in funding, Blue-181 has not been tested on humans yet, but is on the verge of its first clinical trial.
Blue Therapeutics estimates around five years before the drug moves through its clinical phases and is able to prove the claim of being a non-addictive opioid alternative.
“I think the opioid epidemic, the main driver of [this research], is the fact that a lot of us are in pain,” Yekkirala told CBS New. “And if we don’t give effective painkillers, we’re never going to solve this problem.”
Images courtesy of CBS This Morning.