In January, researchers at Tulane University School of Medicine and Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System successfully created a painkiller that is as powerful as morphine and appears to be less addictive. The results of their study were published in the journal Neuropharmacology.
The research team, led by James Zadina, examined the pain-relieving effects of several engineered variants of endomorphin, a naturally occurring neurochemical that interacts with the body’s opioid receptors. Scientists believe that our brain’s typical stash of endomorphins may be responsible for regulating sedation, arousal and pain relief. By strategically modifying these naturally produced chemicals, they hoped to create a powerful analgesic that rivals the strength of morphine.
Why bother looking for an alternative to morphine? Morphine dramatically slows down respiration, making higher dosages potentially lethal. Morphine and other opioid-based drugs can also be addictive — people with chronic or acute pain may start taking morphine as prescribed and then be unable to stop. Finally, morphine often causes the body to build tolerance, or a biological state in which larger doses are needed to achieve the same effect. The researchers hoped that they could successfully create a drug that relieves pain as reliably as morphine but is also non-addictive, safe and unlikely to build tolerance.
The researchers administered these new, endomorphin-based drugs to rats. Not only did these compounds provide pain relief that was comparable to that of morphine, but they also resulted in fewer dangerous side effects. Rats that were given endomorphin-based drugs had fewer issues with motor coordination as well as no significant respiratory depression, unlike the rats that were given morphine.
“These side effects were absent or reduced with the new drug,” explained Zadina in a press release. “It’s unprecedented for a peptide to deliver such powerful pain relief with so few side effects.”
This new drug also appeared to be less likely to lead to tolerance. When researchers studied the drug’s effect on the cellular level, they found that it did not cause spinal glial cell activation, an inflammatory effect known to contribute to tolerance in morphine.
Finally, the researchers studied whether or not the new drug would be addictive. While the rats that had been administered morphine greatly favored the compartment in which it was provided, the rats that had received the new drug did not show a preference for any particular part of their cage. In another experiment, rats that were given the option to self-administer either morphine or the new drug chose morphine every time.
What does this mean?
It will likely be a long time before this new painkiller hits the human market. Scientists still need to perform clinical trials to make sure that it works as well in humans as it does in rats. Still, the results are encouraging. In the future, hopefully we’ll have fewer individuals who develop — or succumb to — morphine addiction.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.