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This new non-addictive painkiller that could help turn the tide of the opioid epidemic

Scientists have developed a painkiller that they believe won’t get users hooked and may offer a glimmer of hope in the fight against the opioid epidemic. 

The new chemical compound was shown to blunt the dependent effects of opioids while producing a painkilling effect similar to morphine in tests on non-human primates.

Additionally, it did not produce many of the adverse side effects seen in opioids such as itching, hypoventilation (slow breathing), and lightheadedness.

The team, from Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, believe its findings show this compound could be an alternative to current prescription opioids.

Scientists believe they may have developed a non-addictive painkiller to help fight the opioid crisis (file image)

For the study, the team wanted to design a compound that would work on two receptors in the opioid system, which controls pain, reward and addictive behavior. 

The first, the mu opioid receptor, produces both the positive effects – like euphoria and pain relief – and the adverse effects including depression and physical dependence. 

The second, the nociceptin receptor – when stimulated – blocks many of the dependence-related side effects of opioids that target the mu receptor and plays a role in stress modulation.

Most opioid pain medications are known as mu agonists, meaning they fully bind to and activate this receptor.

These include such drugs as codeine, fentanyl, morphine and oxycodone.

They only work on the mu receptor, which results not just in the ‘high’ effects but can produce side effects including as itching, abuse potential and dependence.

‘We worked with chemists to develop AT-121, which shows so-called dual action use,’ Dr Mei-Chuan Ko, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine, told Daily Mail Online

‘It’s a better pharmaceutical strategy than combining two drugs because each drug has their own duration or action.’ 

He said that, in the past,clinics have used an opioid called buprenorphine to treat pain as well as addiction to narcotic pain relievers, but that it has high abuse potential and liability. 


Prescription opioids and illicit drugs have become incredibly pervasive throughout the US, and things are only getting worse.  

In the early 2000s, the FDA and CDC started to notice a steady increase in cases of opioid addiction and overdose. In 2013, they issued guidelines to curb addiction. 

However, that same year – now regarded as the year the epidemic took hold – a CDC report revealed an unprecedented surge in rates of opioid addiction.

Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.

Preliminary CDC data, published by the New York Times, shows that US drug overdose deaths surged 19 percent to at least 59,000 in 2016.

This is up from 52,404 in 2015, and double the death rate from a decade ago.

It means that for the first time drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old.

The data lays bare the bleak state of America’s opioid addiction crisis fueled by deadly manufactured drugs like fentanyl.

For this study, the team administered their new compound to primates , and found that it relieved as much pain as an opioid, but at a dose 100 times lower than a dose of morphine.

Additionally, it lessened the addictive effects of oxycodone, the prescription drug Demi Lovato is believed to have overdosed on last month.

The researchers say that this means AT-121 can prove pain relief without users abusing it and without inducing typical side effects such as hypoventilation, tolerance buildup and dependence.

The researchers say they plan to conduct more preclinical trials in animal models and hope to soon apply to the Food and Drug Administration to receive approval for human clinical trials.

‘This is the first compound to be demonstrated in a non-human primate model,’ said Dr Ko.

‘Previous research has been done in rodent model but primate models carry more transitional potential to be an opioid alternative or a replacement for prescription opioids, so that’s very exciting.’

Currently AT-121 is administered intravenously, but Dr Ko says the team will be working with chemists to develop different formulations for delivery, including orally. 

According to an analysis released in February, the growing opioid epidemic has cost the US more than $1trillion from 2001 through 2017.

Around the same time, the US Senate announced it has allotted $6 billion for the opioid epidemic over a two-year period.

Last October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and the federal government is expected to spend a record $4.6 billion this year to fight the opioid crisis.

In March, the president unveiled a new anti-opioid abuse plan to fight the epidemic but it has gained little support from drug abuse and judicial experts due to the focus on tougher penalties for drug offences.

The majority of the plan calls for mandatory minimum offences for trafficking fentanyl and other opioids ‘that are lethal in trace amounts’.

The president also called for the death penalty for drug traffickers ‘when appropriate’.

Two other steps of the plan include a goal of cutting down on prescriptions by one-third over the next three years and boosting treatment, although the latter fails to mention details or how much funding treatment will cost. 


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