“We can block addiction via the immune system of the brain, without targeting the brain’s wiring” – clinical trials possible within 18 months.
In a major breakthrough, an international team of scientists has demonstrated that a drug created nearly 40 years ago – (+)-naloxone (pronounced PLUS nal-OX-own, not to be confused with the related chemical naltrexone) – can:
• Selectively block the addiction response to opioids including morphine and heroin,
• While retaining the pain relieving effects of these compounds.
The team from the University of Adelaide and University of Colorado has discovered the key mechanism – which lies in the body’s immune system – that amplifies addiction to opioid drugs.
The results of their laboratory studies – which could eventually lead to new co-formulated drugs that assist patients with severe pain, as well as helping heroin users to kick the habit – were published Aug 15 in the Journal of Neuroscience (“Opioid Activation of Toll-Like Receptor 4 Contributes to Drug Reinforcement”).
“Our studies have shown conclusively that we can block addiction via the immune system of the brain, without targeting the brain’s wiring,” says lead author Dr. Mark Hutchinson, ARC Research Fellow in the University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences.
“Both the central nervous system and the immune system play important roles in creating addiction, but our studies have shown we only need to block the immune response in the brain to prevent cravings for opioid drugs.”
The team has focused its research efforts on the immune receptor known as Toll-Like receptor 4 (TLR 4) .
According to Dr. Hutchison:
“Opioid drugs such as morphine and heroin bind to TLR4 in a similar way to the normal immune response to bacteria. The problem is that TLR4 then acts as an amplifier for addiction.
The drug (+)-naloxone automatically shuts down the addiction:
• It shuts down the need to take opioids,
• It cuts out behaviors associated with addiction,
• And the neurochemistry in the brain changes. Dopamine, which is the chemical important for providing that sense of ‘reward’ from the drug, is no longer produced.”
Senior author Professor Linda Watkins, from the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, says:
“This work fundamentally changes what we understand about opioids, reward and addiction. We’ve suspected for some years that TLR4 may be the key to blocking opioid addiction, but now we have the proof.
The drug that we’ve used to block addiction, (+)-naloxone, is a non-opioid mirror image drug that was created by Dr. Kenner C Rice in the 1970s.
We believe this will prove extremely useful as a co-formulated drug with morphine, so that patients who require relief for severe pain will not become addicted but still receive pain relief.
This has the potential to lead to major advances in patient and palliative care.”
The researchers say clinical trials of co-formulated drugs may be possible within the next 18 months.
Source: Based on University of Adelaide press release, Aug 14, 2012