Opioids and opiates are the most effective painkillers available to contemporary medicine. In the late 1990s, physicians began prescribing the newly available OxyContin, a semi-synthetic long-lasting opioid, to treat chronic pain. And Pandora’s box was blown wide open.
During the past 20 years, more than 350,000 people have died from an opioid-related drug overdose. A sobering comparison, America’s involvement in the Vietnam war (1955-1975) resulted in more than 58,000 deaths. The disparity in the number of deaths is striking, but even more so are the victims, many of whom were patients following standard medical guidelines to relieve pain following an injury or operation. With alarm bells sounded, the research community is exploring new ways to treat pain to offer patients relief without the fear of losing their life to addiction.
For the past two decades, researchers at University of Utah have been exploring new compounds for their analgesic properties. These compounds come from a most unexpected source — animals that live in the ocean.
Cone snails are carnivorous snails that use a specialized harpoon-like organ to deliver a dose of venom that paralyzes the unsuspecting victim so it can be swallowed alive. The team began examining this venom to identify compounds for their analgesic effect. They recently received a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense to expand their search to other venomous marine creatures.
To evaluate the efficacy of the compounds, the research team evaluates their analgesic properties in rodents. Research in these animals has also enabled the scientists to identify new pathways to relieve pain.
During the course of their studies, the team have already identified one compound (RgIA4) that blocks a pain pathway (a9a10 nicotinic acetylcholine) that is not affected by opioids. This compound is effective within hours of injection and provides pain relief for up 72 hours. While the results are preliminary, they suggest a new approach to treat pain as an alternative to opioids. This work would not be possible without animal research.
As government, the medical community, and pharmaceutical companies work together to crack down on over prescription of opioids, many in the chronic pain community are left without any options. This research is integral to finding new opioid alternatives that are safe and effective to ensure no one has to live with pain.