Monkey Trials Raise Hope for Non-Addictive Opioid Alternative

THURSDAY, Aug. 30, 2018 — The ongoing opioid addiction crisis means the search for powerful but non-addictive painkillers is more urgent than ever before. Now, a team of scientists says it may be nearing that goal.

Research in monkeys suggests that an experimental painkiller — called AT-121 — is not only very effective in easing pain, but it may also blunt the addictive effects of opioids.

AT-121 provided the same level of pain relief as a typical opioid, but at a 100-times lower dose than morphine, according to the research team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“In our study, we found AT-121 to be safe and non-addictive, as well as an effective pain medication,” said Mei-Chuan Ko, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the hospital.

“In addition, this compound also was effective at blocking abuse potential of prescription opioids, much like buprenorphine does for heroin, so we hope it could be used to treat [both] pain and opioid abuse,” Ko added in a Wake Forest news release.

The research showed that — in monkeys, at least — AT-121 suppressed the addictive potential of oxycodone (Oxycontin), a commonly abused opioid prescription drug.

In the experiments, monkeys were able to “self-administer” potentially addictive drugs such as cocaine or oxycodone, but when given AT-121, they were no more likely to do so than when they’d received simple saline solutions.

According to Ko’s team, this suggests that AT-121 lacks the addictive potential of typical opioids.

And unlike typical opioids, withdrawal symptoms weren’t observed when the monkeys ceased using AT-121 after three days, the researchers said.

AT-121 also seemed to ease pain without some of the typical side effects of opioids, such as itch, motor impairment, respiratory and other issues.

Of course, trials conducted in animals sometimes fail to pan out in people. But Ko noted that monkeys are a very close model to humans.

“The fact that this data was in non-human primates, a closely related species to humans,” suggests that the findings have a good chance of being replicated in clinical trials in people, he said.

Still, further research — including safety studies — is needed before applying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval to conduct those clinical trials, Ko said.

The study was published Aug. 29 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about prescription opioids.

Posted: August 2018

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