New drug shows hope for easing chronic pain without addiction

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A team of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Virginia is making progress toward a safer drug for treating chronic pain.

Chronic pain affects millions of people, but many current treatments, like opioids, are highly addictive and have led to serious public health issues.

The researchers recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that their drug candidate can trick the immune system to turn off inflammation and reduce pain.

While the research is still in the early stages, the goal is to create an effective and safe treatment for people suffering from chronic pain.

A promising drug candidate

Immune cells in our bodies produce compounds called endocannabinoids that help regulate inflammation. Normally, inflammation helps the body heal from injuries or infections. However, it can also cause swelling and pain by pressing on nerve endings.

“When our endocannabinoids cause inflammation, our nerves become more sensitive. This makes things that normally wouldn’t hurt become very painful, like how a bad sunburn feels,” said Dr. Aron Lichtman, a professor at VCU.

In this study, the researchers focused on an inhibitor called KT109, which blocks an enzyme in immune cells called DAGLβ. This enzyme produces endocannabinoids that cause inflammation.

Dr. Ken Hsu, now an associate professor at UT Austin, developed KT109 in 2012 and has been working with Lichtman and Dr. Hamid Akbarali at VCU to understand how blocking DAGLβ reduces inflammation and pain. Akbarali’s team studied how the drug affects pain signals in the nervous system of mice.

“In our lab, we measure the speed and strength of pain signals sent to the brain. For this project, we looked at how the drug weakens these signals,” Akbarali said.

Uncovering the path to pain relief

Previous studies showed that KT109 controls inflammation through endocannabinoids and prostaglandins. In this latest research, the team found that the inhibitor also works through another pathway, making it effective for different types of pain.

“When you inhibit DAGLβ, immune cells think they are starving,” Hsu explained. “Changes in energy metabolism can turn off inflammatory signals, helping manage pain. An example is metformin, a diabetes drug also effective in treating pain.”

The inhibitor targets the enzyme DAGLβ, mainly active in immune cells, which helps avoid side effects by not affecting other cells.

The researchers aim to develop the drug as a pill for easier use and reduce potential toxicity. The findings are promising for pharmaceutical companies looking to create new treatments for chronic pain.

If you care about pain, please read studies about vitamin K deficiency linked to hip fractures in old people, and these vitamins could help reduce bone fracture risk.

For more information about wellness, please see recent studies that Krill oil could improve muscle health in older people, and eating yogurt linked to lower frailty in older people.