Scientists have discovered a powerful pain killer that may be as effective as a drug widely used for pain relief.
The synthetic compound, known as UKH-1114, acts on a previously unknown pathway and works at a much lower dose, with longer duration of action, researchers said.
The pain reliever is as effective at relieving neuropathic pain in injured mice as a drug widely used for pain relief called gabapentin, they said.
Neuropathic pain, or chronic pain, is caused when nerves in the central nervous system are damaged.
"If the drug is safe, effective and nonaddictive in humans - a process that typically takes years - the discovery could be instrumental in addressing one of today's biggest public health challenges: the opioid abuse epidemic," said Stephen Martin from The University of Texas at Austin in the US.
Alternatives to opioids have their own drawbacks - for example, gabapentin can cause cognitive impairment in certain individuals.
"This opens the door to having a new treatment for neuropathic pain that is not an opioid. And that has huge implications," said Martin.
The pain drug they found binds to a receptor on cells throughout the central nervous system called the sigma 2 receptor. Although it was discovered 25 years ago, scientists still did not know what sigma 2 did until now.
Theodore Price, associate professor at The University of Texas at Dallas, tested UKH-1114 on mice with nerve damage and found that it alleviated pain as well as gabapentin did, but at a much lower dose (one-sixth as much) and was effective much longer (lasting for a couple of days, compared with 4 to 6 hours).
The study is the first to demonstrate that the sigma 2 receptor may be a target for treating neuropathic pain, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.