Opiates: Keeping the Good, Eliminating the Bad

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Opioid narcotics, like heroin, morphine and codeine, have a wonderful property – they do mitigate pain. No one wants to stop using them in this capacity and they remain the “gold standard” today. Whenever a new, synthetic pain killer is found, its potency is given by comparing it to morphine. But they come with the risk of addiction. What if we could keep the properties we like and get rid of the addiction potential?

Now, it’s being reported that researchers may have done just that – created a drug that blocks the addiction potential but doesn’t interfere with pain relief. The study, a collaboration between US and Australian universities, investigates how blocking part of the immune system in the brain can prevent addiction to narcotics.

Part of the addiction process includes binding of immune system elements our bodies make to the drugs we become addicted to. This binding then magnifies the addictive potential. By blocking the immune system from doing this, the whole mechanism is blocked as well – all without affecting the pain relief properties.

Interestingly, this stops the pleasurable feelings associated with heroin and other narcotic use. And the best news might be that the “cure” in question is a drug already well studied. It’s the mirror image of Naloxone, a drug used in emergency rooms to combat overdose of narcotics. The currently marketed form is the ‘minus’ version (a convention for naming optically active molecules) while the newly studied drug is the ‘positive’ version. This isn’t unusual, mirror images of various drugs used in medicine are known to have different properties. What’s great about that is that it shouldn’t take long to get approval to use the medication in humans. Many of the properties are already known from the current, minus version.

The press release from the University of Adelaide can be found here.

If this pans out, this single advance could completely alter the landscape for addiction to heroin and other narcotics, including prescription painkillers.

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