Opioids are one of the most common ways to treat pain. They can be effective but are also highly addictive, an issue that has fueled the ongoing opioid crisis. In 2020, an estimated 2.3 million Americans were dependent on prescription opioids.
Opioids bind to receptors at the end of nerve cells in the brain and body to prevent pain signals. In the process, they trigger endorphins, so the brain constantly craves more. There is a huge risk of addiction in patients using opioids for chronic long-term pain. Even patients using the drugs for acute short-term pain can become dependent on them.
Scientists have been looking for non-addictive drugs to target pain for over 30 years, but their attempts have been largely ineffective. “We desperately need alternatives for pain management,” says Stephen E. Nadeau, a professor of neurology at the University of Florida.
A “dimmer switch” for pain
Paul Blum is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska. He and his team at Neurocarrus have created a drug called N-001 for acute short-term pain. N-001 is made up of specially engineered bacterial proteins that target the body’s sensory neurons, which send pain signals to the brain. The proteins in N-001 turn down pain signals, but they’re too large to cross the blood-brain barrier, so they don’t trigger the release of endorphins. There is no chance of addiction.
When sensory neurons detect pain, they become overactive and send pain signals to the brain. “We wanted a way to tone down sensory neurons but not turn them off completely,” Blum reveals. The proteins in N-001 act “like a dimmer switch, and that's key because pain is sensation overstimulated.”
Blum spent six years developing the drug. He finally managed to identify two proteins that form what’s called a C2C complex that changes the structure of a subunit of axons, the parts of neurons that transmit electrical signals of pain. Changing the structure reduces pain signaling.
“It will be a long path to get to a successful clinical trial in humans," says Stephen E. Nadeau, professor of neurology at the University of Florida. "But it presents a very novel approach to pain reduction.”
Blum is currently focusing on pain after knee and ankle surgery. Typically, patients are treated with anesthetics for a short time after surgery. But anesthetics usually only last for 4 to 6 hours, and long-term use is toxic. For some, the pain subsides. Others continue to suffer after the anesthetics have worn off and start taking opioids.
N-001 numbs sensation. It lasts for up to 7 days, much longer than any anesthetic. “Our goal is to prolong the time before patients have to start opioids,” Blum says. “The hope is that they can switch from an anesthetic to our drug and thereby decrease the likelihood they're going to take the opioid in the first place.”
Their latest animal trial showed promising results. In mice, N-001 reduced pain-like behaviour by 90 percent compared to the control group. One dose became effective in two hours and lasted a week. A high dose had pain-relieving effects similar to an opioid.
Professor Stephen P. Cohen, director of pain operations at John Hopkins, believes the Neurocarrus approach has potential but highlights the need to go beyond animal testing. “While I think it's promising, it's an uphill battle,” he says. “They have shown some efficacy comparable to opioids, but animal studies don't translate well to people.”
Nadeau, the University of Florida neurologist, agrees. “It will be a long path to get to a successful clinical trial in humans. But it presents a very novel approach to pain reduction.”
Blum is now awaiting approval for phase I clinical trials for acute pain. He also hopes to start testing the drug's effect on chronic pain.
Learning from people who feel no pain
Like Blum, a pharmaceutical company called Vertex is focusing on treating acute pain after surgery. But they’re doing this in a different way, by targeting a sodium channel that plays a critical role in transmitting pain signals.
In 2004, Stephen Waxman, a neurology professor at Yale, led a search for genetic pain anomalies and found that biologically related people who felt no pain despite fractures, burns and even childbirth had mutations in the Nav1.7 sodium channel. Further studies in other families who experienced no pain showed similar mutations in the Nav1.8 sodium channel.
Scientists set out to modify these channels. Many unsuccessful efforts followed, but Vertex has now developed VX-548, a medicine to inhibit Nav1.8. Typically, sodium ions flow through sodium channels to generate rapid changes in voltage which create electrical pulses. When pain is detected, these pulses in the Nav1.8 channel transmit pain signals. VX-548 uses small molecules to inhibit the channel from opening. This blocks the flow of sodium ions and the pain signal. Because Nav1.8 operates only in peripheral nerves, located outside the brain, VX-548 can relieve pain without any risk of addiction.
"Frankly we need drugs for chronic pain more than acute pain," says Waxman.
The team just finished phase II clinical trials for patients following abdominoplasty surgery and bunionectomy surgery.
After abdominoplasty surgery, 76 patients were treated with a high dose of VX-548. Researchers then measured its effectiveness in reducing pain over 48 hours, using the SPID48 scale, in which higher scores are desirable. The score for Vertex’s drug was 110.5 compared to 72.7 in the placebo group, whereas the score for patients taking an opioid was 85.2. The study involving bunionectomy surgery showed positive results as well.
Waxman, who has been at the forefront of studies into Nav1.7 and Nav1.8, believes that Vertex's results are promising, though he highlights the need for further clinical trials.
“Blocking Nav1.8 is an attractive target,” he says. “[Vertex is] studying pain that is relatively simple and uniform, and that's key to having a drug trial that is informative. But the study needs to be replicated and frankly we need drugs for chronic pain more than acute pain. If this is borne out by additional studies, it's one important step in a journey.”
Vertex will be launching phase III trials later this year.
Finding just the right amount of Nerve Growth Factor
Whereas Neurocarrus and Vertex are targeting short-term pain, a company called Levicept is concentrating on relieving chronic osteoarthritis pain. Around 32.5 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis. Patients commonly take NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but they cannot be taken long-term. Some take opioids but they aren't very effective.
Levicept’s drug, Levi-04, is designed to modify a signaling pathway associated with pain. Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) is a neurotrophin: it’s involved in nerve growth and function. NGF signals by attaching to receptors. In pain there are excess neurotrophins attaching to receptors and activating pain signals.
“What Levi-04 does is it returns the natural equilibrium of neurotrophins,” says Simon Westbrook, the CEO and founder of Levicept. It stabilizes excess neurotrophins so that the NGF pathway does not signal pain. Levi-04 isn't addictive since it works within joints and in nerves outside the brain.
Westbrook was initially involved in creating an anti-NGF molecule for Pfizer called Tanezumab. At first, Tanezumab seemed effective in clinical trials and other companies even started developing their own versions. However, a problem emerged. Tanezumab caused rapidly progressive osteoarthritis, or RPOA, in some patients because it completely removed NGF from the system. NGF is not just involved in pain signalling, it’s also involved in bone growth and maintenance.
Levicept has found a way to modify the NGF pathway without completely removing NGF. They have now finished a small-scale phase I trial mainly designed to test safety rather than efficacy. “We demonstrated that Levi-04 is safe and that it bound to its target, NGF,” says Westbrook. It has not caused RPOA.
Professor Philip Conaghan, director of the Leeds Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine, believes that Levi-04 has potential but urges the need for caution. “At this early stage of development, their molecule looks promising for osteoarthritis pain,” he says. “They will have to watch out for RPOA which is a potential problem.”
Westbrook starts phase II trials with 500 patients this summer to check for potential side effects and test the drug’s efficacy.
There is a real push to find an effective alternative to opioids. “We have a lot of work to do,” says Professor Waxman. “But I am confident that we will be able to develop new, much more effective pain therapies.”
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.