The discovery of a painkilling opioid drug that is effective but with no side effects has been sought since chemists were first able to isolate morphine from opium in the 19th century. While opioids are fantastic at relieving pain, they are also highly addictive, and in high enough concentrations can kill you. Now, however, scientists claim they have developed a new opioid drug that is effective at treating pain, but without any of the addictive properties.
If the new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is proven with humans, then it could provide a safe alternative to drugs such as morphine and codeine, which doctors are often slightly reticent about handing out to patients. So far, the scientists have tested the new drug, snappily named BU08028, on rhesus macaques, where it has been successful. This is encouraging since their brains are incredibly similar to our own, and thus similar effects in human trials are expected.
“Based on our research, this compound has almost zero abuse potential and provides safe and effective pain relief,” explains co-author Mei-Chuan Ko, professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in a statement. “This is a breakthrough for opioid medicinal chemistry that we hope in the future will translate into new and safer, non-addictive pain medications.”
Among the world’s oldest drugs, opioids have been used for thousands of years in a medical, recreational, and religious context. They work by reducing the intensity of the pain signal that makes it to the brain, by interacting with the opioid receptors typically found throughout the brain, but also in the spinal cord and digestive tract. Yet because the same receptors are also used in mediating emotional impulses, particularly complex social behaviors and bonding, the drugs are addictive. In addition, at high doses the drugs can interfere with respiratory and circulatory systems, which may result in death.
But BU08028 not only targets the opioid receptors, but another in the brain that blocks the addictive effect induced by normal opioids. In experiments with 14 monkeys, the researchers found that the new drug was just as effective at alleviating pain as traditional opioids, but without a reinforcing effect when the monkeys were then allowed to self-medicate. Not only that, but at high doses it doesn’t inhibit respiratory or cardiovascular activities.
It is important to stress, as is often the case, that these experiments have so far only been conducted in monkeys and have not yet progressed to human trials. However, the fact that the drug was so effective in such a close evolutionary relative of ours does give some hope to the efficacy of the drug in humans.