dependenceThe dream of one day developing pain medications that lack the tendency for patients to form dependencies may one day be possible – thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists. The growing need for such medications is ever so apparent as the country continues to grapple with the prescription drug epidemic’s crippling effects.

Researchers, with the help of a new form of X-ray source, have uncovered how a new type of pain-reliever works, Science Daily reports. Drugs which bond to the same neuroreceptors as morphine, but they lack the physical dependence aspects which go hand and hand with traditional pain narcotics.

“Drug abuse is the leading cause of injury related deaths in the United States and opioid abuse cost the U.S. approximately $58 billion in 2007. The structural data are helping to provide new insight into the understanding of how the receptors work in our body, and the design of novel molecules that might help address this critical health issue,” said co-author Raymond Stevens, director of the Bridge Institute at USC Dornsife.

Throughout the brain and spinal cord there are opioid receptors which have been categorized into four major subtypes: delta, kappa, mu, and Nociceptin receptor, according to the article. When our body experiences pain, molecules or “ligands” are released. The molecules are known as enkephalins, endorphins and dynorphins; when they bind to the four receptors, our mood and pain is regulated.

When pain is severe, opiate drugs like morphine are prescribed; such drugs attempt to artificially mimic the naturally occurring molecules, targeting mu receptors, the article notes. The problem with drugs like morphine is that prolonged use can lead to dependence and/or addiction.

The researchers’ goal is to engineer drugs that interact with both the mu and delta receptors, thereby providing pain relief but blocking the potential for dependence. In order to create such a drug, scientists need the ability to target both mu and delta receptors; however, according to corresponding author, Vadim Cherezov, professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, these receptors are incredibly difficult to image with standard x-ray techniques.

“If you know how the binding physically works, you can design molecules to target the specific receptor sites and generate specific responses,” said Cherezov.

The findings were published online by Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.