Researchers have been working on an experimental painkiller more powerful than morphine but without the potential for dependence or abuse. 

A team from Wake Forest School of Medicine, in support of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, might have found a solution to the country's growing opioid problem. They found that a new chemical compound known as AT-12 has therapeutic properties and suppresses the addictive effects of opioids. 

Safe And Effective

"In our study, we found AT-121 to be safe and non-addictive, as well as an effective pain medication," stated Mei-Chuan Ko, professor of physiology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine. 

The opioid painkillers currently available in the market such as fentanyl and oxycodone are known to cause unwanted side effects including physical dependence and abuse potential. It only works by activating the mu opioid receptor, the part of the brain that makes the person not to feel pain. 

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 42,000 people overdosed in opioid, including prescription, in 2016 alone. A total of 351,630 people died of opioid overdose from 1999 to 2016. 

Around 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed with opioid painkillers misuse the drug, said the Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, between 8 and 12 percent develop disorders related to use of opioid. 

The new painkiller can dramatically reduce the number of opioid overdoses. The AT-121, researchers said, blocks the potential of abuse of prescription opioids similar to the effects of buprenorphine to heroin. 

"We developed AT-121 that combines both activities in an appropriate balance in one single molecule, which we think is a better pharmaceutical strategy than to have two drugs to be used in combination," Ko explained. "Our data shows that targeting the nociceptin opioid receptor not only dialed down the addictive and other side-effects, it provided effective pain relief."

The researchers tested AT-121 on non-human primates that were allowed to self-administer the experimental drug by pressing a button. However, the animals involved chose not to, making researchers believe that the experimental drug is not addictive. 

Hoping For Approval

The non-addictive experimental painkillers still need to go through several tests before it becomes available to the market. Researchers need to find out if the drug has other negative side effects by conducting preclinical studies. It also has to undergo safety and toxicology tests before Ko and his team apply for approval from the Food and Drug Authority to begin testing in humans. 

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine

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