Researchers want to tackle opioid crisis with ... more opioids

Researchers want to tackle opioid crisis with ... more opioids

VicesJanuary 29, 2018 By Brian Frederick

In 1871, a massive fire ran through the heart of Chicago killing nearly 300 people. To combat it, firefighters threw more fire at it. 

In 1981, the CDC reported its first case of AIDS. Shortly thereafter, doctors nationwide chose to inject more AIDS into those afflicted to protect the lives of millions.

None of this actually happened, though. Usually, when bad things go awry, experts find the opposite of what it is and use that. To kill fire, use water. To fight AIDS, use medicine. 

Some researchers fighting the opioid crisis, however, believe fighting one thing with the same thing may actually work. In labs across the world, smart people are developing different opioids to combat the growing opioid epidemic. And for something that killed more Americans in 2016 than the entire Vietnam War, maybe it's not such a bad idea after all.

The problem with modern opioids now, as pointed out in a recent Wired article, is that they're just too damn addictive — a property directly related to what receptor current medications actually stick to.

See, there are actually four opioid receptors: mu, delta, kappa and nociceptin. Drugs like fentanyl, heroin, oxycodone and morphine love the mu receptor, which is reason for its pain-killing properties. The problem is that it's also why they give off withdrawal symptoms only satiated by taking more drugs. For normal patients incapable of identifying problematic behavior, this isn't good. For junkies, this is even worse.

So what some scientists are doing is creating new opioids that latch on to the other receptors to see if they can maintain the painkilling properties (still widely valuable in medical applications) while not being addictive. It all has to do with the shape of the receptors. It's a gargantuan task even with modern medical technology at the disposal of geniuses to figure out.

"The idea in the field for many years has been to make an opioid that provides beneficial analgesic properties without the harmful side effects," says pharmacologist Bryan Roth to Wired. He's a physician researcher at University of North Carolina School of Medicine working on the development of the new kind of opioid.

What he and many others are hopeful of, is to steer current opioids away from the mu receptor and get it to fancy the kappa receptor. It still mitigates pain, the theory goes, but doesn't have any of the nasty side effects current medication does. 

All this and more is found in a recently published paper in the journal "Cell," which also lays claim that researchers are closer than ever to this actually happening. According to the report, they've found the particular shape of the kappa receptor. With this information, they can develop new products with the kappa receptor in mind and start trials on animals (and eventually humans) as soon as possible.

"These molecular insights promise to accelerate the structure-guided design of safer and more effective K-opioid receptor therapeutics," the paper says.

Which means, in short, it's worth a shot.

[cover photo TheDigitalArtist via Pixabay]