Experimental Synthetic Opioid Gives Hope for Pain Relief Without Addiction

By Kelly Burch 08/03/16

UMB425 can reportedly alleviate the side effects of drug tolerance and addictiveness and reduce the physical effects of withdrawal.

Experimental Synthetic Opioid Gives Hope for Pain Relief Without Addiction

For the millions of Americans struggling with chronic pain, there is a constant struggle between finding relief and adhering to strict dosage instructions aimed to curb the likelihood of becoming drug dependent. However, hope may be in sight, as researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a synthetic opioid that relieves pain without causing drug dependence, an innovation that the researchers hope will lower the risk of addiction. 

Most opioid pain relievers act on the mu receptors, one of three opiate receptors in the brain (mu, kappa, and delta). The new compound, known for now as UMB425, acts on both the mu and delta receptors at the same time. UMB425 is intended to activate the mu receptors (for pain relief) and block the delta receptors which, for a reason that scientists do not yet understand, stops the individual from developing a drug tolerance and eliminates the physical effects of withdrawal. 

“We designed this so that when you discontinue the drug, the patient doesn’t go into withdrawal symptoms,” Andrew Coop, professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and lead researcher, told McClatchy DC. “We have shown that it doesn’t cause dependency.”

UMB425 has been under development for about 10 years, but is still five years away from clinical trials, Coop said. The drug has been tested on rodents, and will now move on to primate testing before human trials begin. 

Although the drug has a long way to go before it's available on the market, if all goes as planned, researchers and experts are hopeful that UMB425 and other drugs will help end opioid addiction, which often begins with access to prescription pain pills.

"The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has a clear mandate that we need new ways to treat pain," Dr. David Maine, director of the Center for Interventional Pain Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, told the Baltimore Sun. "They're not going to entertain anything that's the same old … This is novel, it's exciting. It's clearly very promising."

However, one potential issue with UMB425—while making progress—is that it may not do enough to stem the likelihood of addiction. People who take the pill can still experience a pleasurable high, although they will not have withdrawal symptoms.

“We don’t have evidence either way, but it probably would” make users high, Coop told McClatchy. However, Coop hopes to address this by changing the formulation of the drug, or the way that it is administered, in order to minimize the likelihood of abuse. 

“That would be a phenomenal drug to have,“ said Jon Essenburg, regional administrator with Operation PAR, a non-profit that operates the only methadone clinic in Manatee County, Florida.

Even if the drug does provide a high, the fact that there are no withdrawal symptoms or physical dependence would make addiction much easier to treat if one develops, said Essenburg. 

“It would end up being way easier to treat the addiction without having the physical withdrawal that goes along with it. So in that regard, this would be something terrific.”

That is something that the thousands of American struggling with opiate addiction are waiting for. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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