breakthroughs

Researchers advance drugs that treat pain without addiction

New therapies are using creative approaches that target the body’s sensory neurons, which send pain signals to the brain.

Neurocarrus

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.

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Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.
Rehabilitating psychedelic drugs: Another key to treating severe mental health disorders

A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics such as MDMA can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but experts fear that research might easily be shut down in the future.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.

“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”

Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.

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Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.
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Podcast: The future of brain health with Percy Griffin

Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, joins Leaps.org to discuss the present and future of the fight against dementia.

The Alzheimer's Association

Today's guest is Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit that’s focused on speeding up research, finding better ways to detect Alzheimer’s earlier and other approaches for reducing risk. Percy has a doctorate in molecular cell biology from Washington University, he’s led important research on Alzheimer’s, and you can find the link to his full bio in the show notes, below.

Our topic for this conversation is the present and future of the fight against dementia. Billions of dollars have been spent by the National Institutes of Health and biotechs to research new treatments for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, but so far there's been little to show for it. Last year, Aduhelm became the first drug to be approved by the FDA for Alzheimer’s in 20 years, but it's received a raft of bad publicity, with red flags about its effectiveness, side effects and cost.

Meanwhile, 6.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and this number could increase to 13 million in 2050. Listen to this conversation if you’re concerned about your own brain health, that of family members getting older, or if you’re just concerned about the future of this country with experts predicting the number people over 65 will increase dramatically in the very near future.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.

Podcast: Tech for Mental Wellbeing with Nanea Reeves, CEO of TRIPP

An image from one of TRIPP's virtual reality experiences for mental wellness. Nanea Reeves is TRIPP's CEO.

TRIPP

The "Making Sense of Science" podcast features interviews with leading experts about health innovations and the ethical questions they raise. The podcast is hosted by Matt Fuchs, editor of Leaps.org, the award-winning science outlet.

My guest today is Nanea Reeves, the CEO of TRIPP, a wellness platform with some big differences from meditation apps you may have tried like Calm and Headspace. TRIPP's experiences happen in virtual reality, and its realms are designed based on scientific findings about states of mindfulness. Users report feelings of awe and wonder and even mystical experiences. Nanea brings over 15 years of leadership in digital distribution, apps and video game technologies. Before co-founding TRIPP, she had several other leadership roles in tech with successful companies like textPlus and Machinima. Read her full bio below in the links section.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.

New Study Shows “Living Drug” Can Provide a Lasting Cure for Cancer

A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined how CAR-T therapy helped Doug Olson beat a cancer death sentence for over a decade - and how it could work for more people.

Penn Medicine

Doug Olson was 49 when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that strikes 21,000 Americans annually. Although the disease kills most patients within a decade, Olson’s case progressed more slowly, and courses of mild chemotherapy kept him healthy for 13 years. Then, when he was 62, the medication stopped working. The cancer had mutated, his doctor explained, becoming resistant to standard remedies. Harsher forms of chemo might buy him a few months, but their side effects would be debilitating. It was time to consider the treatment of last resort: a bone-marrow transplant.

Olson, a scientist who developed blood-testing instruments, knew the odds. There was only a 50 percent chance that a transplant would cure him. There was a 20 percent chance that the agonizing procedure—which involves destroying the patient’s marrow with chemo and radiation, then infusing his blood with donated stem cells—would kill him. If he survived, he would face the danger of graft-versus-host disease, in which the donor’s cells attack the recipient’s tissues. To prevent it, he would have to take immunosuppressant drugs, increasing the risk of infections. He could end up with pneumonia if one of his three grandchildren caught a sniffle. “I was being pushed into a corner,” Olson recalls, “with very little room to move.”

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Kenneth Miller
Kenneth Miller is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Discover, and has reported from four continents for publications including Time, Life, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Aeon. His honors include The ASJA Award for Best Science Writing and the June Roth Memorial Award for Medical Writing. Visit his website at www.kennethmiller.net.
Resisting Science: A Brief History