According to a saying, the difference between medicine and poison is in the dose. This couldn’t be truer in the case of painkillers among other drugs. Current opioid painkillers are used to alleviate pain in patients after certain procedures. This allows the doctors a bit more options in treatments but not without risk since the painkillers suppress breathing and are highly addictive and can even lead to overdoses. The development of a new painkiller might eliminate these health risks.
According to Brian Shoichet, a pharmacist at the University of California:
“Morphine transformed medicine. There are so many medical procedures we can do now because we know we can control the pain afterward. But it’s obviously dangerous too. People have been searching for a safer replacement for standard opioids for decades.”
An international team of scientists from four different universities around the world has developed a new compound drug called PZM21 that is able to reduce pain without suppressing breathing and inducing addictive behavior, at least in mice that is.
The drug was developed after Dr. Laura Bohn from Stanford University, discovered a protein called beta-arrestin, which sticks to the brain’s opioid receptor after it’s activated by something like morphine. After the drug was administered to rats, who were not able to produce that respective protein, researchers observed no symptoms specific to standard painkillers.
After this discovery, the team of researchers started to explore different possibilities of drugs that could connect to our brain’s mu-opioid receptor and avoid the negative effects of beta-arrestin. According to Dr. Aashish Manglik, a Stanford University researcher:
“The hope is you’d have another molecule that looks like morphine and binds to the same receptor, but the way it turns the receptor on is slightly different.”
Scientists traced the receptor’s structure in a software program and started searching for chemicals that would adhere to the mu-opioid receptor. After testing 3 million possible chemicals, they selected 23 candidates, out of which PZM21 was the most efficient in blocking the protein without producing any side-effects. Besides the absence of any health risks in mice, scientists also found they didn’t build a tolerance to the drug over time.
These results have the potential to cure the near epidemic levels of opioid abuse in the United States, but further research is needed to observe is effects in humans.
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