According to statistics collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), here are the contours of the problem we face:
- An average of 115 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every single day.
- In 2015, 33,000 people in the US alone died from an opioid overdose, and an additional 2 million were living with disorders related to opioid abuse.
- Nearly a third (29%) of people who are prescribed opioids for pain relief wind up abusing them.
The scope and scale of the problem is enormous, and so far, little has been done to manage the issue, but that may be changing, thanks to a dedicated team of researchers led by Professor Mei-Chuan Ko, working out of the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.
The team has recently finished testing (on primates) a new, non-addictive painkiller known as AT-121. The results of those tests were published not long ago in the journal “Science Translational Medicine,” and they are promising indeed.
AT-121 was designed with two goals firmly in mind: One, obviously, the relief of chronic pain, and two, to block the addictive action of opioids. To that end, AT-121 is designed such that it acts simultaneously on the nocicepotin receptor, which inhibits the addictive effects of opioids, and the mu opioid receptor, which makes opioids effective in terms of pain relief.
The results were nothing short of amazing. AT-121 has pain relieving effects similar to morphine, but only requires about 1% of a typical morphine dose to achieve similar results. Even better, since AT-121 targets both of the receptors mentioned above, it manages to avoid the side effects that opioids tend to induce, including respiratory depression, physical dependence, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, and abuse potential.
As Professor Ko explains:
“This compound…was effective at blocking abuse potential of prescription opioids, much like buprenorphine does for heroin, so we hope it could be used to treat pain and end opioid abuse.
The fact that this data was in nonhuman primates, a closely related species to humans, was also significant because it showed that compounds such as At-121 have the translational potential to be viable opioid alternative or replacement for prescription opioids.”
Based on their early research, the team is forging ahead rapidly with additional preclinical trials in a bid to prove that their new drug is safe. Once the additional trials have been completed, the team’s plan is to submit their findings to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for approval. From there, the next stop is clinical trials in humans.
While Professor Ko’s team is still quite some distance from having an alternative to addictive opioids on the market and ready for use, their early work is beyond promising. The day may soon be upon us when AT-121 can take the place of Vicodin, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and others in the opioid family that have been creating as many problems as they’ve been solving, and that is very good news indeed.