U. Texas Researchers Discover Potential Alternative to Opioids

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin discovered what they call a potentially powerful non-addictive painkiller that targets previously untapped receptors in the brain. Such a finding could offer a game-changing alternative for chronic pain sufferers dependent on dangerous prescription opioids.

UT-Austin chemists Stephen Martin and James Sahn oversaw a team of scientists in the creation of the non-opioid synthetic compound called UKH-1114. They say it is as effective at relieving neuropathic pain in mice as is the widely used drug gabapentin, an anti-seizure medication which quiets nerve pain and relaxes muscles.

“This opens the door to having a new treatment for neuropathic pain that is not an opioid,” said Martin in a prepared statement. “And that has huge implications.”

UT-Dallas Associate Professor of Neuroscience Theodore Price, a leading chronic pain expert, tested UKH-1114 on mice with nerve damage and found it alleviated pain as well as gabapentin, but did so when administering significantly lower doses, one-sixth the amount. It remained effective for a couple of days instead of the typical four to six hours after ingesting an opioid, according to UT-Austin.

Last month, the ACS Chemical Neuroscience journal published the results of the team’s research, reflecting the first findings that show sigma receptors may be used to target and treat neuropathic pain.

Martin said this undertaking came about 10 years ago when his lab “stumbled” upon uncovering a class of molecules which bound very tightly to sigma 2 receptors. He added that the drug they created binds to these receptors and also shows the potential to impact other medical issues like Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, and alcohol abuse disorders.

Sahn named the compound UKH for his wife, who, in 2012, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I saw first-hand what people have to go through for neuropathic pain, he told KVUE. “We thought it was fitting to name this experimental lead with her initials UKH, just as tribute to her.”

He said that the team wanted to avoid all the side effects associated with opioids. “Because the compound doesn’t target receptors associated with addiction” there is a good chance the new compound will be free of addictive properties.

Neuropathic or chronic pain results from damaged nerves in the central nervous system. Causes may include chemotherapy, diabetes, and injuries to the brain or spinal cord. Nearly a third of Americans suffer with chronic or severe pain. Currently, the most effective pain relievers remain highly addictive opioids which often require increased dosing to maintain efficacy says UT-Austin.

The UT researchers filed a patent for UKH-1114 and anticipate spending five to 10 years refining the compound and conducting further testing. If they can demonstrate the drug as safe, effective, and non-addictive in humans, their discovery could revolutionize medicinal pain therapy and curb the ongoing opioid epidemic, a crisis which President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

Breitbart Texas reported that since 1999, the number of prescription opioids like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, and methadone dispensed in the United States almost quadrupled. Heroin is an illegal opioid. Tramadol and fentanyl are synthetic versions. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) described fentanyl as “50 times more potent than heroin, is extremely dangerous to law enforcement and anyone else who may come into contact with it,” as reported by Breitbart Texas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) accounted for nearly 2 million Americans who abused or became dependent on prescription opioid painkillers in 2014. Nationwide, they reported more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths one year later.

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