Scientists are currently testing an experimental drug that is more powerful in delivering pain relief than morphine but is non-addictive. This chemical compound is referred to as AT-121. It was developed by scientists in the United States and is currently only being tested on animals.
In the United States, it is estimated that 54 million people over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in their lifetime. Painkillers are the number one most abused drug. More people in the United States use controlled prescription drugs than heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine combined. This makes prescription drugs the second most used illicit drug.
If effective, AT-121 could drastically reduce these numbers. The scientists haven't found any dangerous side effects from the experimental drug. The fact that it is not addictive could make the drug life-changing for many people.
"In our study, we found AT–121 to be safe and non-addictive, as well as an effective pain medication. In addition, this compound also was effective at blocking abuse potential of prescription opioids, much like buprenorphine does for heroin, so we hope it could be used to treat pain and opioid abuse," said pharmacologist Mei-Chuan Ko from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Ko and other researchers set out to find a molecule that would act upon two receptors in the brain. These two receptors were the mu opioid and the nociceptin receptors. The mu opioid receptor is targeted by conventional opioids and prescription painkillers. The nociceptin receptor regulates different brain activities, including feelings of addiction and chemical dependence. This was how AT-121 was born.
"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," said Ko.
Ko was very happy with the results. Using rhesus monkeys for testing, AT-121 delivered pain relief equivalent to morphine, however, at a dosage 100 times lower. Not only was it non-addictive but also reduced levels of addiction in the animals with a dependence on the opioid oxycodone. This information suggests that AT-121 may be able to treat a persons pain, while simultaneously weaning them off of other drugs.
While the AT-121 study had great results using rhesus monkeys, that doesn't necessarily mean that it will have the same exact effect on humans, but researchers are remaining positive and confident that more work and research could prove that it will have the same effect on humans.
"The fact that this data was in nonhuman primates, a closely related species to humans, was also significant because it showed that compounds, such as AT–121, have the translational potential to be a viable opioid alternative or replacement for prescription opioids," Ko said.
AT-121 could also potentially have another great benefit. When given to the monkeys, even at a high dosage, AT-121 did not trigger respiratory depression or cardiovascular issues. This could mean that AT-121 could possibly be an effective, non-addictive painkiller that would be impossible to overdose on.
"I think this is pretty interesting. This is one of several of these types of studies that have been published recently that suggest there may be hope for creating safe medications for treating pain. It gives me hope for the field that we may be turning a corner," said pharmacologist Bryan Roth from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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