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Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery

A new non-addictive class of compounds developed by researchers at Purdue’s College of Pharmacy could lead to the treatment of chronic pain conditions, such as back pain and arthritis, in the absence of opioid dependence.

These non-addictive class of compounds could combat the opioid pain reliever addiction and overdose problems that have contributed to the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the drug heroin as well as prescription pain-relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. They activate opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system that block pain triggers known as adenylyl cyclase 1 (AC1). They, however, also create pleasurable effects that may lead to addiction.

Val Watts, professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology (MCMP) and associate dean for research in Purdue’s College of Pharmacy, has developed a series of compounds that bypass opioid receptors and act directly on AC1. These compounds are potential therapeutic agents for treating pain while reducing the likelihood of side-effects such as dependence and addiction.

The novel compounds also have the potential to decrease the signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Watts is collaborating on the compound with Pharmacy and MCMP colleagues Dan Flaherty, an assistant professor, and Richard Van Rijn, an associate professor.

The Purdue research efforts are designed to attack the nation’s opioid crisis, which has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder and 11.4 million misused prescription opioids in 2017.

Deaths related to the misuse of prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999, with an estimated 91 people dying in the U.S. every day from an opioid overdose according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those deaths, an estimated 40% overdosed involving a prescription opioid in 2016.

At the same time, the annual cost of chronic pain in the U.S. is estimated to be $635 million, impacting more than 100 million people, as reported by the American Pain Society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 91 people die in the U.S. every day from an opioid overdose. Chronic and inflammatory pain are commonly treated with opioids. However, use of opioids often leads to opioid dependence. Dependence puts patients at risk for overdose, both fatal and nonfatal.

“This could be the drug of first choice for chronic pain, so physicians wouldn’t have to prescribe opioids long-term, and we would be less likely to see dependence and addiction,” Watts says.

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