Strategies to treat pain without triggering dangerous side effects such as euphoria and addiction have proven elusive. For decades, scientists have attempted to develop drugs that selectively activate one type of opioid receptor to treat pain while not activating another type of opioid receptor linked to addiction. Unfortunately, those compounds can cause a different unwanted effect: hallucinations. But a new study led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has identified a potential route to pain relief that neither triggers addiction nor activates the pathway that causes hallucinations.
The research is published May 3 in the journal Nature.
Painkilling drugs such as morphine and oxycodone, as well as illegal street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, activate what are known as mu opioid receptors on nerve cells. Those receptors relieve pain but also cause euphoria — the feeling of being high — and that feeling contributes to addiction. An alternative strategy is to target another opioid receptor, called the kappa opioid receptor. Scientists attempting to make drugs that target only the kappa receptor have found that they also effectively relieve pain, but they can be associated with other side effects such as hallucinations.
Researchers at the Center for Clinical Pharmacology at Washington University School of Medicine and the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy, also in St. Louis, have identified the potential mechanisms behind such hallucinations, with the goal of developing painkillers without this side effect. Using electron microscopes, they identified the way that a natural compound related to the salvia plant selectively binds only to the kappa receptor but then causes hallucinations.
“Since 2002, scientists have been trying to learn how this small molecule causes hallucinations through kappa receptors,” said principal investigator Tao Che, PhD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology. “We determined how it binds to the receptor and activates potential hallucinogenic pathways, but we also found that other binding sites on the kappa receptor don’t lead to hallucinations.”