The New Drug That May Be The Future of Pain Relief

By Kelly Burch 07/20/17

A new drug in development may be able to provide pain relief without the highly addictive qualities of many opioids.

Medical researcher examining pill in front of blackboard with formula

Drug makers have long been trying to develop an opioid that is resistant to abuse, and research now shows this may be possible with a new drug that crosses the blood-brain barrier more slowly, providing pain relief without the euphoric high that often causes people to misuse opioids. 

NKTR-181, developed by Nektar Therapeutics, was shown to have lower human abuse potential than oxycodone. The molecular structure of the drug means that it acts on the brain more slowly than other opioids, meaning people are less likely to experience the side effects that can lead them to abuse opioids. Developers hope that this will allow NKTR-181 to provide pain relief without the highly addictive qualities of many opioids. 

"Today's opioid abuse epidemic has created a pressing need for a better pain medicine that does not possess the euphorigenic qualities of conventional opioids," said Dr. Ivan Gergel, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Nektar, in a press release.

He pointed out that molecular structure of the drug—which can’t be changed—means that this isn’t a drug that people could tamper with in order to get a high. 

"Getting very high, very fast, is a mark of conventional high-risk, abused opioids," said Jack Henningfield, PhD, vice president at Pinney Associates and adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "NKTR-181 represents a meaningful advance in the treatment of pain as the first opioid analgesic with inherent brain-entry kinetics that avoids this addictive quality of traditional opioids. This prevents the rapid 'rush' that abusers seek during the critical period immediately after dosing."

Gergel said that the drug is an important advancement in providing relief to patients with chronic pain without putting them at risk for addiction. 

“Many patients do not receive adequate pain relief because they fear taking conventional opioids, including abuse-deterrent formulations, because of their potential for abuse and addiction,” he said. “We believe NKTR-181 is a transformational pain medicine that should significantly advance the treatment of chronic pain and could be a fundamental building block in the fight against prescription opioid abuse."

The Food and Drug Administration has given NKTR-181 a fast-track designation. However, it is not clear when the drug may get FDA approval or when it will be available for patients. 

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