Non-Addictive Opioids May Be Possible With New Breakthrough

By Beth Leipholtz 01/09/18

Scientists have been studying a brain protein that they believe will play a key role in developing addiction-free pain medication.

Scientist using a microscope in a laboratory

After making a discovery about the brain’s receptor proteins, scientists may be one step closer to creating a non-addictive painkiller. 

According to The Guardian, researchers in North Carolina have been working to find a non-addictive alternative to morphine and other opioids. A study about their discoveries was recently published in the journal Cell

As part of their research, they studied a receptor protein in the brain that interacts with opioids. They were able to break down its structure as it binds to a molecule related to morphine. While scientists previously knew the structure of the protein, this was the first time it was studied as it binded to a morphine-related molecule. 

The protein, which is called the kappa opioid receptor, is one of four proteins that interacts with opioids. Researchers have found that while it can elicit pain-killing effects, it is not tied to other issues such as constipation, addiction risk or death. 

Bryan Roth, co-author of the research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that understanding how the protein works and interacts with opioids could potentially help develop drugs that bind only to that protein, limiting the risk of addiction and creating overall safer painkillers. 

“Tens of thousands of people are dying every year in the U.S. because of opioid overdoses; in the last year more than 50,000 people died,” Roth told The Guardian. “That is as many as died in the Vietnam war in the U.S. It is a terrible, terrible crisis.”

Daniel Wacker, a research associate in Roth’s lab and one of the study’s authors, told Inverse that by only activating one opioid receptor, the hope is that future medications could avoid addictive side effects.

“We expect these results to translate into novel drugs with improved selectivity for [kappa-opioid receptors], as most current opioid medications (such as OxyContin or Vicodin) activate all three opioid receptors, which is the reason for some of their side effects,” he said.  “We also show how chemists could modify current medications to target specific downstream signaling of [kappa-opioid receptors], which would further reduce their side effects.”

One concern in this discovery is that the kappa opioid receptor can create side effects like hallucinations or general feelings of unease. However, researchers say they can likely design medications that avoid these side effects and focus solely on pain relief. 

Since the discovery, researchers have been working to study the structures of different molecules that interact with the kappa opioid receptor. Roth says the team has been able to design and create a drug that interacts only with kappa opioid receptors, but it has only been tested in cell cultures. 

Though this is progress, Roth says it will likely be years before such drugs are available for patients. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.