UNK researchers studying alternatives to opioids

KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - Right now opioids are the most effective painkillers on the market. But because of the way they interact with brain receptors they cause a dangerous addiction that kills hundreds of people daily across the country. A team of researchers at UNK are finding another way to treat pain and avoid addictions.

When an opioid is used it connects with opioid receptors in the brain and other body parts blocking pain signals and releases dopamine.

“The series of events that leads to the binding event that follows the binding event causes addiction. So if you avoid using opioids you will be able to avoid opioid addiction, Associate Professor of Chemistry Mahesh Pattabiraman said.

But how to treat pain? Associate Professor of Biology Surabhi Chandra and Pattabiraman have found a plant in southeast Asia that has similar compounds to opioid drugs. They hope to use those compounds and direct the drug at other receptors that don't have the addictive side effects.

“So this is a Chinese medicine and they have been using it traditionally not in incarvillateine but the whole plant product basically,” Chandra said.

They are still in early stages of testing the compounds but it is showing promising results.

“As of now the compound we are pursuing is acting to the adenosine pathway but we have to find out the exact cascade of events once the drug binds with the adenosine receptor,” Pattabiraman said.

In 2017, more than 47,000 people died from opioid related overdoses. One third of those were legally prescribed to patients. So the UNK team wants to hopefully move research along to find a safer way to treat pain.

“Probably around 10 years depending on how fast we progress or if we get other people to work on other aspects it could be a little sooner. If it shows a really promising effect and maybe more people will be interested and we can move this further along,” Chandra said.

They are only funded for a year of their research so they are applying for more grants and working with other researchers to advance the project. Once they get the grants they can continue their testing of the compound to see how it acts after the binding with the receptor to see if it really is not addicting like opioids. After that is complete they can move on to human trials in the future.