Research Foundation News

July 9, 2019

The power of the brain to fight opioid addiction, treat chronic pain

pain relief Researchers at Purdue University are developing compounds to provide effective pain relief without the risks associated with opioids. (Stock photo) Download image

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The annual cost of chronic pain in the United States is estimated to be more than $635 billion in direct medical costs, lost productivity and disability programs. One in five adults – 50 million Americans – report living in chronic pain.

The increasing number of patients is leading to a major push to develop non-opioid treatments for chronic pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 130 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.

Researchers at Purdue University are developing compounds to provide effective pain relief without the risks associated with opioids. The compounds selectively inhibit adenylyl cyclase 1 (AC1), an enzyme that has previously been validated to target chronic inflammatory pain.

“I have had chronic back pain for more than 30 years,” said Val Watts, a professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology and the associate dean for research in Purdue’s College of Pharmacy, who helps lead the research team. “I have a long-standing interest in understanding the mechanisms for AC1 in opioid dependence.”

AC1 is a brain enzyme that becomes overactive in chronic pain states and is found where the pathways for chronic pain signaling and opioid analgesic signaling intersect.

Watts pain This figure shows a simplified model of chronic pain signaling and opioid analgesic signaling. (Image provided) Download image

“Our technology bypasses the opioid receptor and directly inhibits AC1 activity,” Watts said. “Because compounds that target AC1 will be non-addictive and have the potential to treat opioid withdrawal they could be used to transition patients from opioids to AC1 inhibitors.”

Watts said the technology being developed at Purdue also could help in treating cancer pain and tooth-related pain.

The Purdue team includes other medicinal chemists and pharmacologists, including Richard van Rijn and Dan Flaherty. These professors have worked with partners from the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota and received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The team has worked with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization on patenting their technology. They are seeking additional partners.

The research aligns with Purdue's Giant Leaps celebration of the university’s global advancements made in health as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. It is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

About Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization           

The Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization operates one of the most comprehensive technology transfer programs among leading research universities in the U.S. Services provided by this office support the economic development initiatives of Purdue University and benefit the university's academic activities through commercializing, licensing and protecting Purdue intellectual property. The office is managed by the Purdue Research Foundation, which received the 2016 Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Award for Innovation from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. For more information on licensing a Purdue innovation, contact the Office of Technology Commercialization at For more information about funding and investment opportunities in startups based on a Purdue innovation, contact the Purdue Foundry at Purdue Research Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation created to advance the mission of Purdue University.   

Writer: Chris Adam, 765-588-3341, 

Val Watts,

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