Using receptors in the immune system, scientists think they’ve improved opiate addiction treatment and also the ability to prevent the addiction by improving the effect of painkillers in the first place.
Opiate drugs such as OxyContin, Opana, and Vicodin are used to treat men and women who are suffering from pain. Painkiller addiction can develop for those who use these opiate drugs and the resulting mental and physical addiction can ruin lives and destroy families. Heroin provides the same type of sensation and many who are hooked on pills gravitate to using the dangerous street drug.
New Technology in the Fight Against Opiate Addiction
Now, researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Adelaide in Australia have found a method of “blocking” addiction to opioids like OxyCcontin. The method also provides increased pain relief. The hope is that there could be a new treatment for people that are experiencing chronic pain. It is possible that this treatment could also help heroin-addicted individuals overcome the grasp of that deadly drug.
“We know that drugs like heroin drive a feeling of pleasure due to the spike of dopamine in the brain,” says Dr. Mark Hutchinson from the University of Adelaide. “Our work suggested neuro-pathways are important, but the vast majority of the cells in the brain are glia (immune cells). So our theory was that the immune system was involved in drug rewards as well – and the study verified this theory.”
Moving from the Nervous to the Immune System and TLR4
Most current programs that treat opioid addiction focus mostly on the central nervous system. The team of researchers in Colorado and Australia focused instead on the immune system’s response. Specifically, the immune receptor Toll-Like receptor 4 (TLR4).
“Our study showed that opiates bind to this receptor TLR4. TLR4 is (among other things) the receptor that causes anaphylactic shock. TLR4 recognizes E. coli, so it’s a bacterial receptor. TLR4 also recognizes morphine. The result is that the immune cells take over the reward pathways, therefore, driving pathological rewards to morphine. This ‘amplifies’ the effect of the opiates. When we develop drugs to block TLR4, we will hopefully inhibit opiate pleasure rewards from presenting themselves,” Hutchinson states.
Studies show that the drug naloxone blocks the immune response to morphine, shutting down additional pleasure resulting from continued use of opioids. If the TLR4 is blocked dopamine is no longer produced, and this is the chemical that creates a sense of “pleasure” that opiate users experience.
Another Positive Effect – Increased Pain Relief from Opiates
The researchers discovered another beneficial effect of blocking TLR4 – it amplifies the pain relief provided by opiate painkillers.
“When you block TLR4, it actually increases the pain relief you get from the opiates,” Hutchinson said. “Not only do we have a treatment for people who are addicted to painkillers, but we may also have an opportunity to prevent the addiction by better treating individuals who are coping with pain. It is possible that narcotic painkillers my also be formulated with a drug like ours to stop the TLR4 activity – reducing pain but also stopping the addiction.”
The hope is that this recent discovery will relieve pain while not contributing to addiction. As we’ve written extensively on this blog, opiate addiction is continuing to grow at an alarming rate.
In the meantime if you or anyone you care about is in need of help for an opiate addiction, do not hesitate to contact our treatment center for addiction and begin the process of seeking help.