The hunt for opioid alternatives: Researchers look to sensory blocking substances from the ocean

Over two million people in the U.S. have become dependent on opioid drugs, with approximately 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015. The country’s opioid crisis is leading scientists and researchers to find new ways to treat pain, and they’re making a lot of progress. A team of researchers from the University of Utah Health (U of U Health) recently received a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense to conduct a study on identifying new compounds to develop non-opioid drugs for pain management.

Pain has many causes, and many people are suffering. And because of pain, people use anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics for relief, and most of the time, develop dependence on these pain-killing medications. According to J. Michael McIntosh, a professor of psychiatry at U of U Health, the dependence of society on opioid drugs is creating an urgency for finding alternatives to treat pain. He and the other researchers involved in the study are turning towards ocean organisms that have analgesic and anesthetic qualities.

Historically, people have looked to terrestrial plants for medication, including the poppy plant (opioid) and the willow bark (aspirin). As of late, there are only a few new medications derived from nature. The study aims to isolate various compounds from marine organisms and their venoms in order to identify the next non-opioid pain reliever. These organisms are effective in defending themselves, even with the lack of arms and teeth. Mollusks, sea snails, and slugs have defense mechanisms, including venom, that numb, stun, and eventually paralyze prey and predators completely. The focus of the study is to understand the properties of these types of venom.

In a previous work entitled Inhibition of ?9?10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors prevents chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the research team identified the analgesic properties of a venom isolated from Conus regius, a small cone snail commonly found in the Caribbean Sea. They also aim to develop a drug from C. regius that can be metabolized (absorbed) by the body, producing the analgesic effect. The current research team will base their studies on the above-mentioned work. Aside from aiming to discover marine life forms that will benefit the future of pain medication, the researchers are also looking to understand biological pathways to reduce the sensation or discomfort of pain and inflammation. The study aims to create new medications that have the benefits of opioids but without the negative side effects.

According to Russell Teichert, a research associate professor from the Department of Biology at the university, the team does not want to find another drug that works the same way as opioids do, since it will only result in the same addictive problems and effects such as respiratory depression (and other side effects). In the study, they will be testing the marine-collected venom on three laboratory rodents that can mimic pain in humans in order to assess its effectiveness for future trials.

Pain is a normal process by which the body reacts to something that can be harmful to us. However, chronic pain caused by an abnormal neuropathic process is what the researchers aim to address. The research team is likely to be successful in their new venture, especially after their previous work on Conus magus resulted in the development of the drug Prialt, approved by the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) in 2004 to treat severe pain from cancer, AIDS, failed surgery, and some central nervous system disorders.

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