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The Future of Opioids

Every day, new advances are being made in the world of medicine in hopes of discovering the next miracle drug, or finding a way around some of the horrendous side effects that dog otherwise effective medications. A prime example of such a drug are opioids. Despite being an extremely effective painkiller, addiction and overdose continue to plague those who are prescribed opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin. It may seem hard to believe, but in 2014, 38 people died every day from overdoses involving opioids. In an effort to help curb this number, efforts are being made worldwide to develop the next opioid replacement, and we may have just found it.

Tested on monkeys for pain relief, a new opioid referred to as BU08028 was shown to be just as effective as other opioids like morphine. However, what makes BU08028 unique isn’t what it does, but rather what it doesn’t. Even when exposed to very high doses of the drug, it produced no signs of addiction in the test subjects. Furthermore, at these doses the drug displayed no harmful side effects like other opioids would. So how is this drug as effective as other opioids without producing a dependence?

Traditional opioids like morphine and Vicodin target receptors in the body that regulate the pain felt by the nervous system. These are often called MOP receptors, and are targeted by almost every major class of opioid. However, what makes BU08028 so effective while simultaneously not forming a dependence is its ability to target both the MOP receptors and another receptor, NOP. Rather than playing a role in addiction or dependence, these receptors help regulate not only pain, but also anxiety and memory.

While this drug may not be the exact same one that eventually hits the market, it certainly provides an interesting insight to the future of modern medicine. If we can learn from this drug, eventually we may be able to produce opioids that can be prescribed freely without the risks commonly associated with them. However, there are some questions and concerns that have yet to be addressed. In the past, drugs have been marketed under similar conditions. Tramadol was initially believed to be a non-addictive alternative, but proved to also result in a dependence in users despite operating similarly to BU08028. Some are also hesitant to call this a miracle drug, as in the past heroin and oxycodone were also marketed similarly. Only time will tell if this drug becomes the future of pain medication, or simply another addictive painkiller. As medicine moves forward, we can hope for the former while trying our best to avoid, understand, and treat the latter.

Sources

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/08/24/1605295113
http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/09/new-opioid-douses-pain-without-being-addictive-or-deadly-in-primates/