Safer opioid drugs could treat pain and save lives

December 5, 2017, American College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Opioid drugs are the most widely prescribed and effective type of pain medication. But they are highly addictive and have some unpleasant and potentially deadly side effects.

Now a group of researchers, led by Dr. Laura Bohn at The Scripps Research Institute, may have found a way to make opioids safer by separating the drugs' pain relieving effects from their most dangerous side effect, respiratory suppression, which, in very severe cases, causes patients to stop breathing and to die.

All drugs elicit their effects via a small group of protein , called . When an opioid drug binds to its receptor, the receptor is activated and kicks off a chain of reactions that relieve pain. However, the activated opioid receptor can also interact with other nearby signaling proteins, causing side effects such as nausea, sedation, constipation or, most seriously, respiratory suppression.

Dr. Bohn's team has identified several molecules considered to be "biased agonists" because they act at the opioid receptor to stimulate , but cause less stimulation of the pathway that leads to respiratory suppression. In preliminary studies using mice, the researchers found that the most promising of these compounds provided pain relief levels similar to morphine, but with significantly less respiratory suppression.

Such opioids could help patients and doctors deal with drug tolerance, a frequent complication in which, over time, patients lose sensitivity to the pain-blocking properties of opioids and require higher doses to treat their . While biased agonists may be able to be used more safely at higher doses than other opioids, it remains to be seen how other side effect profiles will be affected.

One compound identified as a biased agonist—from the company Trevena—is already showing promising results as it makes its way through clinical trials, and the researchers hope that new compounds with stronger biases will yield even better results.

The recent epidemic of opioid-related deaths has been driven primarily by use of illegally made . However, are playing a significant role in the epidemic. As opioid overdose deaths are mostly due to respiratory suppression, safer prescription opioids, such as those being developed by Dr. Bohn, could also ultimately decrease the number of deaths caused by abusing prescription opioids.

Explore further: Separating side effects could hold key for safer opioids

Related Stories

Separating side effects could hold key for safer opioids

November 16, 2017
Opioid pain relievers can be extremely effective in relieving pain, but can carry a high risk of addiction and ultimately overdose when breathing is suppressed and stops. Scientists have discovered a way to separate these ...

New painkillers reduce overdose risk

November 16, 2017
Scientists on the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have developed new opioid pain relievers that reduce pain on par with morphine but do not slow or stop breathing—the cause of opiate overdose.

Gabapentin co-use may increase risk of fatal opioid overdose

October 3, 2017
Co-prescription of the anticonvulsant gabapentin is associated with an increased risk of opioid-related death in people who are prescribed opioid painkillers, according to a new study published in PLOS Medicine.

Long-term opioid use does not increase risk of Alzheimer 's disease

October 24, 2017
Opioid use is not associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, shows a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland. Researchers did not find any risk neither for long-term use nor for higher cumulative ...

Drugstore pain pills as effective as opioids in ER patients

November 7, 2017
Emergency rooms are where many patients are first introduced to powerful opioid painkillers, but what if doctors offered over-the-counter pills instead? A new study tested that approach on patients with broken bones and sprains ...

Strategies to combat the opioid epidemic

November 15, 2017
The opioid epidemic is ravaging lives and tearing families apart. Overdose deaths from heroin, fentanyl and misused prescription painkillers have tripled in the past 15 years. Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine ...

Recommended for you

Researchers publish study on new therapy to treat opioid use disorder

May 22, 2018
Better delivery of medications to treat opioid use disorder (OUD) is key to addressing the opioid crisis and helping the 2.6 million Americans affected by the disease.

Could nonprofit drug companies cut sky-high prices?

May 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Generic prescription drugs should be cheap, but prices for some have soared in the United States in recent years. Now a group of U.S. hospitals thinks it has a solution: a nonprofit drug maker.

Fewer antibiotics for kids, but more ADHD drugs

May 15, 2018
(HealthDay)—American kids are taking fewer prescription medications these days—but certain drugs are being prescribed more than ever, a new government study finds.

Opioid makers' perks to docs tied to more prescriptions

May 14, 2018
Doctors who accept perks from companies that make opioid painkillers are more likely to prescribe the drugs for their patients, new research suggests.

Less is more when it comes to prescription opioids for hospital patients, study finds

May 14, 2018
In a pilot study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Yale researchers significantly reduced doses of opioid painkillers given to hospital patients. By delivering the opioids with a shot under the skin or with a pill instead ...

Generic options provide limited savings for expensive drugs

May 7, 2018
Generic drug options did not reduce prices paid for the cancer therapy imatinib (Gleevec), according to a Health Affairs study released today in its May issue.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.