New medications developed to lessen addiction

A novel opioid alternative, NKTR-181, offers more pain relief with less risk of addiction

In America alone, the opioid crisis has caused the deaths of 72,000 people in the last year. As the death toll rises, scientists are increasing their efforts to develop non-addictive pain medication. On August 29, 2018, their dream became a reality. 

At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Neel Anand, Senior Director Medicinal Chemistry at Nektar Therapeutics, presented a novel opioid alternative, NKTR-181, that offers more pain relief with less risk of addiction. This preliminary solution to the opioid crisis offers hope and change to healthcare as we know it. 

Opioids are powerful pain relievers that bind to the Micro-Opioid Receptor, referred to as MOR. Located in neurons in the brain and spinal cord, MOR protein triggers a molecular avalanche that relieves pain, while causing the release of high dopamine levels. When found in certain regions in the brain, dopamine can cause a high level of euphoria, leading to addiction. 

Natural and man-made opioids, such as oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine, have monopolized the medicinal industry, so doctors routinely administer them.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rise in the opioid epidemic is driven by the increased availability of such medications.

Nektar’s drug is very similar to oxycodone, but triggers a slower release of dopamine, offering constant pain relief and less euphoria. It has already been tested in more than 600 patients with great success. 

While this new drug opens the door for hope, it has been observed that addicts often find ways to alter non-abusive medications to create high euphoria. Thus, others are working on alternative drugs, too.

A news report in Science describes a new drug from Astraea Therapeutics that target two brain receptors at once to deliver pain relief without addiction.  Similar drugs that target two receptors are already in clinical trials to treat diabetic nerve pain. 

Novel opioid alternatives are paving the way for advances across the medical field. Not only are scientists such as Dr. Anand developing new treatments for pain, they may be finding a reverse to the nationwide narcotic epidemic. 

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