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A Potentially Safer Way to Develop Opioids

In the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies told the medical community that opioid drugs would not be addictive, claiming that patients would not become addicted to opioid painkillers. Read More

The Opioid Crisis

In the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies told the medical community that opioid drugs would not be addictive, claiming that patients would not become addicted to opioid painkillers. With this feeling of reassurance, healthcare providers began prescribing these drugs at greater and greater rates. Years later, the world would soon find that the idea of opioids not being highly addictive was pure fantasy. A tale of negligence or corporate greed. Data from 2019 reveals that nearly 50,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the economic cost of the crisis comes to $78.5 billion a year, which covers factors such as healthcare and criminal justice involvement. Not to mention the mental and spiritual cost of life and families left behind after a loved one overdoses. 

Some alarming stats from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) show that “Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them…Between 8 and 12 percent of people using an opioid for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder…About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.” If those pharmaceutical companies in the late 1990’s could have known the devastation the opioid crisis would end up causing, would they still have peddled the myth of the drugs being non-addictive? 

The Search for Solutions

Many people have been trying to find solutions to end the epidemic, could one of those solutions include finding a way to reduce the addictiveness of opioids? “The holy grail of opioid research is to determine the ideal properties of an opioid analgesic for maximizing pain relief while reducing the adverse side effects,” said Jennifer Whistler, professor of physiology and membrane biology in the UC Davis School of Medicine. A team of researchers led by Whistler has found a potentially safer way to develop opioid drugs.

Jennifer Whistler

This finding is a major breakthrough in opioid drug research. Whistler says that the goal to develop safer opioids has “become even more urgent in light of the devastation wreaked by the opioid overdose crises and the failure to identify other non-opioid targets for the treatment of severe and persistent pain.” Whistler has been researching safer methods for over 20 years now and is the associate director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. 



According to the study, “Opioid drugs work by connecting to the mu opioid receptor (MOR) on cells. This receptor in turn signals through G-protein and can also engage a protein called arrestin-3. The prevailing view has been that engagement of the mu opioid receptor with arrestin-3 is responsible… [for] the respiratory depressive effects that cause overdose death and the development of analgesic tolerance that leads to dose escalation and increased risk of addiction and overdose death.” Whistler and her team have challenged this long standing view.

The Whistler Lab conducted experiments and trials using mice, with results that “Contrary to the prevailing hypothesis, we have found that arrestin-3 engagement prevents analgesic tolerance and does not exacerbate respiratory depression.” Whistler says that her lab used “a powerful combination of genetic and pharmacological approaches to demonstrate this point.” The studies conducted conclude that there is a more balanced way to produce these drugs. However, Whistler comments that “we cannot know whether a balanced approach will lead to safer opioids, until we have a library of such molecules to test.” 




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