Scientists Just Took a Big Step Toward Ending the Opioid Epidemic

A new pain medication appears to be less dangerous than the prescription drugs that are killing thousands—and not addictive.

<a href="">Pureradiancephoto</a>/iStock

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Scientists are one step closer to designing a drug that relieves pain but doesn’t have the harmful side effects of today’s opioid painkillers.

When the rodents treated with the compound were placed on a hot plate, they appeared to experience as much pain relief as those treated with morphine.

The need is clear: In 2014, 14,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription opioids like oxycodone or hydrocodone (known by brand names OxyContin and Vicodin). The death toll from prescription opioid overdoses has roughly quadrupled since 1999. The drugs, prescribed for chronic pain, frequently lead to addiction; as many as one in four people prescribed opioids for long-term pain struggles with addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control. When ingested in high doses, the drugs slow down breathing and can be fatal.

A team of researchers, whose work was published earlier this month in Nature, designed a compound named PZM21 that is producing promising results. Multiple experiments on mice appear to reduce pain without slowing down breathing or being addictive. When the rodents treated with the compound were placed on a hot plate, for example, they appeared to experience as much pain relief as those treated with morphine. Mice showed no preference between being in a chamber where they received PMZ21 and another where they received a saline solution.

Rather than tweaking an existing drug, as most drugs are created, the research team used a combination of computational modeling and synthetic drug generation to design a compound from scratch that would bind well with the known structure of the brain’s opioid receptors. Doing so was a four-year effort, involving researchers from Stanford University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California-San Francisco, and Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany.

Of course, there’s a long way between mice studies and a drug on the market for human use; the authors estimate it will be one to two years until the compound makes its way to the Food and Drug Administration for testing. Still, when it comes to developing a drug that could help mitigate today’s opioid crisis, Aashish Manglik, a Stanford physiologist and the study’s lead author, says he is “cautiously optimistic.”


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend