PhotoOpioid addiction has become a major health problem because these painkillers are very powerful and habit-forming.

In addition to people who overdose while using them for recreation, millions more become addicted through legitimate use to treat pain. It has health professionals rethinking how they should treat pain in the first place.

A team of international researchers just might have a solution. The scientists say they have developed a substitute for current opioid drugs that can block pain without the dangerous side effects.

Their study, published in the online edition of the journal Nature, says the secret is building the drug from the ground up, not starting with an existing chemical compound.

The scientists, including some from California and North Carolina, used a computer to explore four trillion chemical interactions before coming up with a formula that they say blocks pain as effectively as morphine, without the side effects.

Doesn't affect breathing

Mainly, the new drug does not interfere with breathing, which is the main cause of death from overdose. They say that in experiments with mice, it did not seem to be addictive. That contention, however, will require more research to conclusively prove.

Prescription opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, coinciding with a surge in sales of these drugs, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and methadone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 165,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose from 1999 to 2014.

“Opioid prescribing continues to fuel the epidemic,” the CDC says on its website. “Today, at least half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. In 2014, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids.”

Why opioids?

Opioid use has surged, in part, because physicians usually try to give patients as much relief from pain as possible. In the case of opioids, the drugs sometimes are just too powerful for the patient's own good.

Brian Shoichet, PhD, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy and co-senior author on the new paper, says powerful opioids have also made new surgeries possible because doctors are able to better control the pain afterwards.

“But it’s obviously dangerous too,” he said. “People have been searching for a safer replacement for standard opioids for decades.”

Have they found it? The researchers admit it's too early to tell. But they say successful tests for addiction on rats and other larger lab animals could be the first step toward clinical trials that could bring the drug to the marketplace.

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