Researchers Develop New Non-Opioid Drug To Treat Chronic Pain

A new non-opioid drug for chronic pain is currently in its early stages of development. Researchers from the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience are working in partnership with the University of California San Diego and the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop a drug capable of treating certain types of chronic pain.

The drug compound, ML351, is designed to treat chronic pain without the addictive consequences of opioids. Discovered by researchers from the NIH, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ML351 inhibits a naturally produced enzyme that’s known to contribute directly to chronic pain that can’t be treated with common anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.

Because this chronic pain can’t be treated with normal over-the-counter medication, many patients suffering from chronic pain turn to more powerful drugs such as Oxycodone and other opioids.

The use of opioids in treating chronic pain is a major issue in the opioid epidemic, but many medical professionals haven’t been able to provide an alternative to opioids aside from physical therapy and massage therapy. The researchers behind ML351 hope to change that.

“Our goal is to demonstrate the preclinical efficacy of ML351 for chronic pain that does not respond to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and might otherwise be treated with opioids,” said Ann Gregus, a research scientist at the Virginia School of Neuroscience. Gregus is one of the lead researchers working on the drug compound alongside assistant professor Matt Buczynski.

Acute pain, Buczynski says, is meant to protect the body from severe self-injury, but chronic activation of these pain signaling pathways can have debilitating side-effects. However, there are few drugs that exist to treat chronic pain effectively such as that caused by autoimmune diseases.

This is where drug discovery, a multi-billion dollar industry, plays an integral role. ML351 is expected to target a new signaling pathway that’s believed to be responsible for the development of chronic pain that’s unresponsive to anti-inflammatory drugs.

“ML351 may be effective for multiple types of pain,” said Gregus, “and our future studies will investigate its utility in other models of chronic pain.”

Many Americans seeking medical care do so because of unmanaged pain. Medical issues with chronic pain affect over 40% of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, the painkillers designed to treat chronic pain have contributed to the ongoing opioid crisis.

“Chronic pain is extremely challenging to treat due to a lack of effective first-line therapies,” said Buczynski. “While opioids are highly effective medications, concerns regarding danger of their misuse have reached a fever pitch.”

Because of these dangers, the need for non-opioid treatments to effectively manage chronic pain is at an all-time high.

“ML351 shows promise as a non-opioid therapeutic to treat pain states not relieved by over-the-counter medications,” said Gregus. “Future studies will determine how we can translate these findings into novel therapeutics for clinical use.”

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