VA researchers find promising results for safer pain medication


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.

Phil WallsPhil Walls is a public affairs specialist with the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in New Orleans Louisiana. He is a Marine Corps Veteran (1999-2003).


Phil Walls


  1. Guy seaton    

    OK. No time to wait! Chronic pain off VA opioids equal street opioids

  2. Jessy naija    

    The ZH853 should be made available even after trial.

  3. Celegacy    

    Hmmmm, I really love the discussion on this post.
    Nice one VA

  4. Leola Harris    

    I was taken off my pain medication abruptly and left to endure the pain or whatever. VA did not care that I was a chronic pain management veteran, just that they coplied with whatever was being mandated. I ask one question, what do you think happens to the excruciating pain that is controlled by the opiates once they are stopped? Answer: it is still there, only It becomes more complex and more debilitating because there is no relief. 3 to 4 years from now is a very long time to suffer and this drug is not for long term care. My ability to have a sense of life has greatly depreciated.

  5. Suzanne DeMichele    

    It is called “Quality of Life”, what have the test rats said regarding that?!? If your course of treatment has been established and effective for over 3 years DO NOT think for one minute you get to play test bunny with me, ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING SIDE EFFECTS & INTERACTIONS with all of the other meds I must take daily as well…!

    1. Tucker Rain    

      Just admit you’re an addict and love free drugs. You’ll lose in the end so stop now.

  6. Mike C Sheldon    

    After being on opioids since the mid 90’s, at this point I would urinate on a sparkplug if I thought it could take the place of these horrible drugs. Damaged back and knees are a fact of life and I’m not getting any younger. I would love to try this new attempt at ridding us of this monsterous cycle of withdrawals trying to end it.

  7. Ronald E Nesler    

    I checked with the lab rats, they say VA is LYING.

  8. Milfred Bradway    

    Will this new pain medication ZH853 be in liquid, chewable or crushable for people who have had the Roux En Y Gastric by pass surgery. We have malabsorption with medication especially extend time released.

    1. Jessynaija    

      Mildred, the ZH853, is it available in capsules?

  9. Tiffany B    

    I’d really like to know- How exactly do researchers know that the animals (“rats”) are in no pain, less pain, or the like? Many of us experience various levels of pain daily…various “types” of pain- i.e. burning, throbbing, aching, shooting etc. I’ve personally had days that a so called “level 8″ pain thats uncontrolled, continually aggravating cause more disruption in my ability to perform daily tasks in or outside my home and cancel any form of socializing events in any kind of manner be more problamatic in all aspects than a couple hours of say a ” level 10″ pain that could subside enough with OTC meds/ relaxation/ rest/ heat/ ice/ elevation/ compression etc…Sometimes I can even manage to push through some pain sometimes to complete a task but then suffer drastic consequences with exacerbated pain symptoms hours later even for next few days after with increased pain flares that have lasted 5-6 days. HOW can they say they KNOW or CAN SHOW/CAN PROVE pain is reduced or relieved for these animals at all???

    1. Debra Wiggins    

      Tiffany they measure changes in behavior. Items such as tail flicks, feeding behavior, sleep patterns, activity levels and vocalizations are noted as indicators of pain or distress. Small rodents specially bred have been studied for countless generations and they produce new generations quickly and in large numbers.

  10. Felix DeQuess    

    I love how the media now parrots acupuncture, yoga and chiropractic medicine as viable treatment for pain management. Repeating it over and over, even in print, does not make it so. Also, many of us who are on opioids have tried those things as well as many other approaches, including the other now parroted terms mindfulness, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.
    I’m hopeful for this new drug, however, I’m curious if it rips up one’s stomach like NSAIDS do when on them daily. If they could just find a way to make Toradol stomach friendly, what a wonderful discovery that would be.

  11. I. Leigh Mitchell    

    Studies have shown that less than 5% of patients become addicted to opioids. Those that do often did so on a stolen prescription and moved onto stronger harder drugs. Millions of compliant chronic pain patients were cut off completely or forcefully tapered down in amount of medicine and are now either suffering and miserable at home or have committed suicide. The VA did the same thing many private physicians did and misread the CDC’s recommendations for non pain management doctors prescribing opioids for the first time. Consequently the results were people losing their pain medicine that they had been responsibly using, as well as being subjected to embarrassing pill counts & urine tests for drugs,

  12. SCOTT LANG    

    Time for VA Guinea Pig trials

  13. Richard A Lawhern PhD    

    It is highly premature to suggest that a trial in RATS is in any sense a “breakthrough”. There are too many potential pitfalls in the protocols with animal models. The most that can be said for a trial of this sort is that it seems “suggestive” of an avenue deserving further research. What we may have here seems to be an example of self-promotion triumphing over science.

  14. Marty Creasman Forrest    

    Just approve of MMJ for our Vets! ✌️

  15. Sandra McBee    

    Why weren’t side effects or cost mentioned? Why do doctors STILL take compliant patients off their opiates when FINALLY it’s common knowledge and medical and govt are admitting that chronic pain patients were NEVER the problem? And why the hell arent those who were kicked off, called back to restart their pain care? Why are we left still on the streets having to find and take illicit substances? And why does that alone prevent any future pain care with claims be doctors that ‘now you are no longer suitable for opiate treatment’? Really doc? I think now we are MORE suitable since we haven’t OD’d, and our dosage stayed stable and even without any monitoring, we didn’t die and stuck with just that one substance we found. By the way, it’s the very substance that this country originally used before morphine was created.

    1. Jacques    

      You haven’t figured out yet that they’d like to reduce the cost of taking care of aging boomers and are doing it any way they can?

  16. Robert Crandall    

    As usual the article failed to tell the truth. The VA mercilessly took every veteran with chronic pain off opiods without any care of what the policy would do to us. Then they insulted us further by giving us nsaids that do not work and cause gastrict disturbances as well as liver problems in people like me who have a damaged liver from chronic Hep C. Then because I have a doctor outside of the VA, they threatened my doctor that if he did not force taper all veterans that they would take action to take his license. I have CRPS AND CIDP and am paralyzed and in a wheelchair. I have had it with the strongarm tactics of the VA.

  17. Barbara Tabor    

    This may address acute pain or post-op pain, but assumes that pain will end. It does not account for chronic, intractable, or degenerative pain conditions.

  18. Ray    

    I am happy for this news but wonder how medical providers and researchers have z tendency to not even say patient or Veterans.
    are dyimng all over the country and it seems to me the VA cares only about some arbitrary number. You did not say that veterans with chronic pain are finding relief in some other form.
    Veterans all over the country are dying or worse killing themselves. We aren’t finding relief at the VA we just seek outside care and struggle to pay for it. I am now happy with my pain care because I pay for it myself with money I can’t afford to pay. The VA has helped me and I am thankful I just wish that someone could see all the veterans and their families who are suffering even as I write this.
    Veterans prescribed opioids by the VA were never the problem, but we sure have paid another high price.

  19. John C. Stewart    

    How long before this is available, 5 to 10 years? The VAs so called Patient Centered care yanked every Vet off pain meds and replaced them with more dangerous black box labeled NSAIDS. More of the usual VA good PR nonsense.

  20. Maggie King    

    Glad to hear that.
    I was cut off from my 12 years of compliant Pain Management treatment last year. The doctor retired early but no one will take us.
    Too bad many of us won’t be here in 6 or so years when meds come out

  21. Tom Edelman    

    After trial how long will ZH853 take to be available?

  22. Nuoma911    

    Thanks for such a beautiful post, very informative and useful article

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