Heroes

Scientists may have found a painkiller that you can't overdose on.

A new candidate drug could help manage pain without harmful side effects.

Scientists may have found a painkiller that you can't overdose on.

A few years ago, I got my wisdom teeth out. Ironically, one of the worst parts of the experience was the painkillers.

I was prescribed oxycodone, an opioid painkiller, after the procedure. And though it helped with the recovery, I felt like taking those pills was a bigger deal than, you know, having part of my body surgically removed.


I disliked taking them because I ended up with killer nausea (I actually had to get another prescription to deal with that), but I also knew (and had a stern warning from the pharmacist) that opioids can sometimes be dangerous.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really glad we have opioid painkillers.

Opioids are a class of drugs named after the opium poppy. They include medicines like oxycodone and morphine as well as medicines-turned-illicit drugs like heroin. They're an indispensable part of modern medicine. Few other drugs approach their ability to reduce pain.

But there are big drawbacks to using them.

They can be incredibly addictive. In fact, the U.S. currently has an epidemic of people addicted to either prescription or illicit opioids.

They also come with some serious side effects, including halting your respiration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates than more than 70 people a day die from an opioid overdose.

Overdose kits can save lives but only if they get there in time. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

So that begs the question: What if we could make an opioid without all those drawbacks?

Scientists might have just created an overdose-proof opioid. Oh, and early tests hint that it might not be addictive, either.

A new study published online Aug. 17, 2016, in Nature explained that a team of scientists just developed a candidate drug that kills pain without interfering with our ability to breathe.

They also think the drug might circumvent the brain's addiction circuit, although they need to do more work to see if this holds up.

One of the coolest things about this is how they created the drug.

Instead of tweaking an existing medicine, they started from scratch.

Opioids work by locking on to molecules in our cells known as receptors, especially one called the mu opioid receptor. For a long time this was a black box, but we recently figured out the mu opioid receptor's atomic structure.

It might look like a tie-die Rorschach test, but to a scientist, this could be a treasure map. Image from Protein Data Bank/Wikimedia Commons.

Why is this a big deal? It's like the difference between trying random keys in a door and being given the lock's specific blueprint. So rather than having to try chemicals one by one, the scientists were able to create a custom design on a computer.  Over a few weeks, they ran four trillion virtual experiments, looking for the perfect key — one that'd hit only the mu opioid receptor while avoiding the ones that influenced breathing.

After a while, they ended up with about two dozen candidates, which they then synthesized and tested in mice. Those experiments led to the new drug.

There's a long, long way to go with this new drug. But if this works, it could help a lot of people someday.

Kim Sullivan's son died of an opioid overdose. She's since become a public health education advocate. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

"Morphine transformed medicine," said one of the scientists, professor Brian Shoichet, in a press release. "There are so many medical procedures we can do now because we know we can control the pain afterwards. But it's obviously dangerous too. People have been searching for a safer replacement for standard opioids for decades."

It's premature to say whether this drug'll hit the shelves. But who knows — one day someone might be able to walk into a pharmacy after getting their wisdom teeth out, secure in the knowledge that their painkiller is not only effective but safer than ever before.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.