Promising New Painkiller PZM21 Could Be Safer Morphine Alternative

By David Konow 08/23/16

Scientists are reporting that compound PZM21 appears to function like morphine but without a lot of the addictive qualities. 

Promising New Painkiller PZM21 Could Be Safer Morphine Alternative

With so much in the news about the current opioid epidemic—especially the grim overdose and death statistics, which have quadrupled since 1999—there may finally be some good news on the horizon for patients who need painkillers but are terrified of the addictive side effects.

According to the LA Times, a painkiller called PZM21 is “tantalizingly close” to being perfected, and scientists claim it could be as effective as morphine without being addictive. PZM21 has so far only been tested on mice, and the results have shown that it can provide pain relief for up to three hours, which is longer lasting than a dose of morphine.

The researchers say that the mice did not show signs of becoming addicted to PZM21—they didn’t compulsively seek refills of the painkiller and they didn’t become manic after taking it. The drug is still not perfect, however. The respiratory rate in the mice dropped 40% from taking PZM21. (Yet, once the drug’s effects wore off, the mice returned to normal breathing, whereas patients who take morphine can continue to have a lower respiratory rate once its effects wear off.)

The researchers saw it decrease pain by 87% in the mice, which is close to a similar dose of morphine, which reduces pain by 92%.

The research on PZM21, led by Dr. Aashish Manglik of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Henry Lin of the University of California, San Francisco, used computers to test over three million compounds to determine which elements could create a non-addictive painkiller. 

Brigitte Kieffer, a molecular biologist, told the LA Times that “an ideal opioid would kill pain potently without producing morphine’s harmful respiratory effects, would show sustained efficacy in chronic treatments and would not be addictive”—and that the progress that researchers have made with PZM21 could indeed be a big step towards “this perfect drug.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic," Manglik told Bloomberg. "What we’ve done is find new chemical matter, molecules that are really quite different from previously characterized opiates.” The next step will be years of testing PZM21 on human patients because, as Manglik added, addiction is “really a human disease.” 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.