After 10 years of research, scientists at the University of Maryland have created a new drug that has same effects as other strong painkillers, but with a lowered chance of becoming addicted. The drug, called UMB425, is still in its infancy, but has already grabbed the attention of federal and local governments alike. If the preliminary research holds true, Baltimore City health officials suspect they may have found a way to reduce the terrible prescription drug abuse rates plaguing the city.
The research team is headed by Andrew Coop, who also acts as an associate dean of academic affairs and a professor at the University of Maryland. Coop explains that the drug is ready to be tested on primates, and hopes to do so as soon as he receives official clearance. From there, the drug would go on to begin clinical human trials in as little as 5 years from now.
Coop goes on to explain how the UMB425 interacts with the brain in a way that no other opioid has been able to thus far. Most opioids act by binding with one of two receptors within the brain, mu and delta. These two receptors have different functions throughout the body. Mu receptors are believed to be part of the body’s central nervous system, and therefore help regulate sleep patterns, breathing, and behavioral responses. Delta receptors belong to the peripheral nervous system, and help regulate sensory perception and motor coordination. Until now, opioid medications could only activate one type of receptor or another, but never both at once. UMB425 is the first synthetic opioid to simultaneously activate both receptors.
What does this mean? For reasons not yet completely understood by science, activating both receptors at the same time reduces opioid tolerance, and reduces opioid addiction. While UMB425 still produces a euphoric high – something which Cooper says that he and his team are currently working on eliminating – the drug will still be less addictive than other synthetic opioid remedies.
The implications of what this could mean for combating opioid addictions are remarkable. In the world of synthetic opioids, not everyone becomes addicted because they want to get “high”. A high tolerance threshold is often responsible for non-abusers to become addicted to their medication, even when taken as prescribed. With current opioid medications, users are bound to eventually develop a physical resistance to the drug’s painkilling effects, which requires them to take greater and greater dosages in return. Thus, with some of the stronger opioids, a prolonged prescription will inevitably lead to physical dependency. Since UMB425 does not seem to cause its users to develop a tolerance with prolonged use, however, the risk of developing a physical addiction, even after long-term use, is very low. In other words, the same dosage will give the same therapeutic effects.
A health science administrator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse called the research “very promising”, but was quick to add that the information was also “very preliminary”.
Early research or not, Baltimore health officials are hoping UMB425 will be the city’s much-needed tool to quell rising addiction rates to synthetic opioids. The city faced 396 overdose deaths in 2015 alone, up by over 90 deaths from last year. For further comparison, only 167 opioid-induced overdose deaths were reported in 2011.
Coop reports that UMB425 has received a total of $2 million in grant money, and estimates that about as much needs to be raised before the drug will be ready to go to market. If UMB425’s working mechanisms on the mu and delta receptors are as reported, then in the near future, Baltimore citizens may not have to make the choice between living with chronic pain and living with crippling addiction.