Inside The Pursuit of Non-Opioid Pain Relief

By Kelly Burch 04/19/17

After years of stalled research, drug companies have resumed efforts to develop opioid-free pain relief options. 

A woman pouring a pill from a medicine bottle into her hand.

With growing awareness about the risks of becoming hooked on opioid painkillers, researchers and pharmaceutical companies are pursuing options for pain relief that do not carry the same risk of addiction—despite the fact that 20 years ago, drug companies “failed miserably” to develop non-opioid pain relief, according to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

One promising medication was tanezumab, which was developed in the early 2000s by a company that was later bought by Pfizer. The medication works by blocking nerve growth factor, a protein that the body makes in response to pain. Despite the fact that tanezumab proved effective at pain relief, research was stalled when it was discovered that the drug may affect joint repair and regeneration. 

Patients, doctors and drug developers were disappointed. “You rarely get people to feel that good,” Dr. Alan Kivitz of Altoona Center for Clinical Research, told CBS News.

One of Kivitz's patients who benefited from the experimental drug was devastated by losing access to it. “I was so angry,” said Phyllis Leis of Waterfall, Pennsylvania. “That was like a miracle drug. It really was. Unless you have arthritis in your knees and have trouble walking, you’ll never understand how much relief and what a godsend it was.” 

However, testing of tanezumab has now resumed, and results are expected later this year. Ken Verburg, who has led Pfizer’s pain research for several decades, said that the early promise of the drug motivated the company to stick with it. “When you do see one, you fight hard to try to bring one to the market,” he said.

Another innovative approach to pain is wound-numbing drugs, which help quell the initial pain following a procedure like surgery. That, in turn, can help prevent the development of chronic pain. Heron Therapeutics is testing one such product, and companies have found that the solution reduces patients' need for opioid painkillers by 30 to 50%. 

“The goal would be to have half or more of patients not requiring an opiate after they go home,” said Heron’s chief executive, Barry Quart. “You have far fewer opiates going out into society, far fewer opiates sitting in medicine cabinets that make their way to a high school.”

Other companies are looking at pain relief from sodium channel blockers (which affect nerve communication), injectables, cartilage regeneration and marijuana. 

Companies have seen the financial incentives for developing alternative pain relief, according to Volkow. One example is the drug, buprenorphine, which is now used to treat addiction. 

“It has shown pharmaceutical companies that if you come up with a good intervention, there is an opportunity to recover their costs,” she said.

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