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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