Scientists at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and Tulane University have announced a breakthrough in research that could lead to safer treatment of pain. They have developed a new drug with less risk for addiction and overdose compared to currently available opioid medications. The new drug also shortens time to recovery from pain.
Called ZH853, the new drug was developed by James Zadina, Ph.D., the director of the neuroscience laboratory at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and a professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. The goal was to avoid some of the most troubling side effects of currently available opioid medications. Morphine, for example, can cause depressed breathing, which can lead to death.
A main concern when treating pain with opioids is the potential for misuse or addiction. In earlier studies, Zadina and his colleagues found that rats given morphine showed drug-seeking behaviors, while the rats given ZH853 did not. Morphine can also cause pain symptoms to last longer, enabling acute pain to become chronic.
“A drug that prevents the transition from acute to chronic relapsing pain would represent a true breakthrough in drug development for pain management,” said Zadina.
In a paper published last week, Zadina and his colleague, Amy Feehan Ph.D., of Tulane University, showed that ZH853 was as effective as morphine at relieving pain in rats. The results also showed that morphine, by aggravating immune function, increased the length of time the subjects felt pain. ZH853, on the other hand, reduced the length of time the subjects experienced pain, indicating anti-inflammatory effects.
“The results of these studies indicate the potential of this drug to be safer than morphine,” explained Zadina.
Producing a medication for pain that is safe and effective while unlikely to be abused could save many of the tens of thousands of lives that are lost each year to opioid overdoses. Further research is needed before ZH853 can be prescribed for pain, including clinical trials in human subjects. Trials could start within two years.
VA’s funding of research to develop of ZH853 shows our commitment to safely treating pain in Veterans. Over the past six years, VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative has reduced opioid dispensing more than 50 percent. Whenever possible, health care providers are using alternatives to prescribing opioids, such as acupuncture, yoga and chiropractic medicine. Patient safety is the main priority of VA health care. Innovative treatments and pioneering research will continue to improve health care so that more Veterans can live free from chronic pain.