Building the Perfect Painkiller

How to treat pain without feeding the drug abuse trade? So far, opium and its derivatives are still unequalled in their capacity to relieve pain. But the drug’s effects are addictive to some people, which has grown into a huge problem for pain sufferers who risk addiction as a tradeoff for relief. The mechanism of addiction also causes opiates to become less effective for pain over time, leading to the need for higher doses.  

Pharmaceutical researchers have tried to interrupt stages in this cycle for as long as drug companies have existed. In 1898, Bayer synthesized heroin from the opium poppy. The name comes from “heroic”—heroin was believed to be not only a stronger painkiller than morphine, but also less addictive.

The pattern has continued ever since. “Almost immediately when pharmaceutical companies started introducing products, they claimed they were either non-addictive or less addictive,” says David Herzberg, a historian at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Then this claim would turn out to be false, or at least overstated.

In 1915, for example, Roche introduced a drug called Pantopon, which was also made from the opium poppy. It was said to be less addictive than morphine because it contained multiple compounds from the plant, which was supposed to be safer because it was more “natural.” It wasn’t.

In the 1930s, a drug called desomorphine was the new non-addictive analgesic. It was simply another opioid—and therefore addictive. (It’s now infamous in Russia under the name “Krokodil” for the grotesquely disfiguring skin condition caused by the impure drug. Botched illegal manufacture is common in Russia, in part because opioids are so hard to get there.)

In 1996, OxyContin was introduced as a less addictive opioid, with tragic results. By 2007, the number of overdose deaths from prescription opioids outnumbered deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.

There are some new drug formulations in development that may ease pain without causing addition or giving addicts the “high” they crave. Read about them at Nautilus. -via Not Exactly Rocket Science

(Image credit: Ana Benaroya)

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