RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And even though people taking opioids can quickly become dependent, they are often the best drugs for relieving pain. Now, as Angus Chen reports, scientists are searching for a better painkiller - one as powerful without the dangerous side effects.
ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Everything you feel on an opioid like morphine starts when a drug activates three receptors in your body. One is really important for taking away pain, but it's also responsible for the other potentially lethal things that come with opioid use, like addiction and depressed breathing. Dr. Aashish Manglik at Stanford University and others set out to discover a new drug that could relieve pain by using the opiate receptor but not trigger the deadly side effects. Manglik and his co-workers analyzed 3 million chemicals looking for something like this.
AASHISH MANGLIK: The hope is that you have another molecule that, in some ways, looks like morphine that - in that it can bind to an opiate receptor, but that the way that it turns the receptor on is slightly different.
CHEN: One chemical that doesn't seem to get mice high or hurt their breathing, but it does kill pain. There are a couple of other candidates from different research teams, too, including one that's currently in clinical trials. While the new findings are promising, Laura Bohn, an opioids researcher at the Scripps Research Institute, says that perfect painkiller hasn't been found yet.
LAURA BOHN: We have some really gorgeous compounds, and, you know, I'm still very, very cautious with it. I think opiates are just a terrible epidemic right now, and I would be very careful of selling this as the answer.
CHEN: It isn't guaranteed any of these chemicals will make it to the market, but she says she's getting more confident they're on the right track. For NPR News, I'm Angus Chen.
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