Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many others. Every day more than 130 people die from opioid overdose as suggested by the US data; there has been a 30% increase in drug overdose cases in India since the last decade, reports UN. These numbers have been rising without any signs of slowing or stopping. Because opioid is prescribed as painkillers from dental work to cancer and such health issues, making it easier to grab on the said narcotic. But Ganesh Thakur, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Science at Northeastern University, is working diligently to put an end to the opioid epidemic.
His creation deals with a chemical compound that can enhance the ability of one’s own body to get relief from pain, making it possible for the patient to avoid addiction to opioids. The idea and inspiration of this compound came to him from Marijuana. It’s a definite surprise here, isn’t it? But believe it, because cannabis could actually crush down this epidemic. Time and again, cannabis has been used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation for thousands of years. But these effects are short-lived and come with loads of side effects, such as changes in mental state, increased appetite, and, in some people, addiction. But Thakur is trying his best to research the synthetic ways through which he could replicate the positive effects of the drug without prompting the negative ones.
Cannabinoids, the chemical compounds in cannabis, bind to complex proteins that are woven into the walls of our cells. One of these proteins, the cannabinoid type 1 receptor or CB1, is especially prevalent in our brains. When cannabinoids bind with CB1 receptors, they trigger a series of signals that lead to marijuana’s myriad effects. But Thakur says he didn’t need to trigger the CB1 receptors. Our bodies produce their own cannabis-like compounds, called endocannabinoids, that bind to CB1 receptors and cause similar responses. But what he needed was to find a successful way to separate these signals and boost the ones that relieve chronic pain and pain associated with nerve damage, known as neuropathic pain.
Thakur developed compounds aimed at secondary binding sites called allosteric sites.
“When you give something that is not competing but assisting, to strengthen the signaling, it has a miraculous effect,” he said.
Thakur has created allosteric modulators that enhance the pain-relieving signals sent out by CB1 receptors at his lab at Northeastern University. He already has his plans laid out to help people who are already addicted to opioids. He also has some success in reducing alcohol addiction too.
“If I can develop one safer and effective drug for treating pain and one for treating opioid addiction, I think it will be a big contribution to our society,” Thakur said. “There is a lot of hope here.”