NOV 16, 2017 06:00 AM PST

Opioid Crisis: How Can Chemistry Community Help?

 

American opioid crisis statistics. Credit: Socrata

The United States is grappling with one of the worst-ever drug crises. More than a thousand people a week die from opioid-related overdoses, and millions of more people suffer from opioid addiction. In 2016, opioid overdoses killed more than fifty-three thousand people, a sevenfold increase from 1999.

If numbers do not tell you enough of how bad the crisis is, what happened to Ross County, a small rural town of 77,000 people in Ohio, in 2016 might be able to provide you a better idea: 44 people died from overdosing or other opioid-related condition, 150 children were placed into state care due to parents with opioid addictions, and a huge amount of pressure was landed on the county’ finance.

The crisis has reached such a scale that, beyond the risks it poses to public health, it is becoming a drag on the economy and a threat to national security. Analysts say the problem started with the over-prescription of legal pain medications, like oxycodone, but note that it has intensified in recent years with an influx of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, supplied by foreign-based drug cartels.

The chemistry community has been actively involved in delivering relieving efforts through different approaches. The most recognizable move came more than 20 years ago. When Purdue Pharma announce the release of OxyContin, a so-called abuse-deterrent form of opioid, in 1996, they forever changed the landscape of pain treatment.

What is special about OxyContin is that it contains oxycodone, a semisynthetic opioid, and ingredients that would enable the gradual release of the drug. Purdue claimed that patients taking these pills had a less than 1% chance of becoming addicted.

In a recent statement on reducing the risky use of prescription drugs, a pharmaceuticals alliance and advocacy group calls abuse-deterrent opioids an important treatment option that can help prevent widespread misuse. With 15 abuse-deterrent opioids currently in late-stage clinical trials, it is hoped that the misuse of prescribed opioids can be largely curbed.

But the abuse-deterrent form of opioids is not fix-all. Their circulation in the market has caused an unforeseen consequence: abusers shift their behaviors. In a survey on two different reformulated opioids, researchers discovered that after the treatment of OxyContins, its use by snorting, injecting, or smoking went down by 48%. At the same time, oral misuse went up by 49%. In contrast, Opana ER another brand of abuse-deterrent opioid prompted a more nuanced shift: people reported a 54% decrease in snorting, an 86% decrease in smoking, but only a 14% decrease in injecting the drug. Oral misuse remained about the same. Based on information from follow-up interviews, the researchers suggest that making it harder to snort the drug pushes people toward injection.

The unsatisfactory outcome of the abuse-deterrent form of opioids have chemists to redirect their efforts to the pain and analgesia research and find better alternatives to opioids. What happens with opioids, especially in term of managing chronic pain, is that patients take these drugs for considerable periods of time and rapidly build up the tolerance to them. For them to get the same pain relief, they need to take higher doses. Then dangerous consequences follow, including respiratory depression, addiction, and accidental overdose-caused death.

Researchers are looking to move beyond opioids for safer, nonaddictive, and more effective treatments for pain. In their search, scientists are exploring a wide range of drug targets beyond the mu opioid receptors that oxycodone and other opioids bind to and trigger. These alternative targets include G protein-coupled receptors, ion channels, enzymes, and growth factors. While many of these avenues look promising, experts in the field caution that obstacles stand in the way of making a good treatment for chronic pain.

Another area where chemists can get involved is to help find a fast and safe method to identify opioid and other illicit substances for the law enforcement agencies. Suspected drug samples are either tested at the scene or in the lab. To help relieve that burden in the laboratory and prevent accidental exposure, rapid testing techniques to safely identify dangerous compounds are under development.

Before the opioid crisis, law enforcement officers who came across suspected drugs commonly conducted a field test by mixing small drug sample with test reagents in a sealed envelope. Not only are the kits subjective and easy to misinterpret, but the act of taking a sample now puts officers at risk for accidental exposure.

The push-button analysis is the ideal mode of testing the industry wish to pursue, for the fast and accurate analysis for street drugs. Many instrument companies have been updating and adapting handheld Raman spectrometers, to identify illicit drugs. Raman spectroscopy is used in chemistry to identify molecules by examining the vibrational frequencies specific to a molecule’s chemical bonds and symmetry. They are perfect for detecting explosives for hazmat teams and bomb squads. They collect spectra produced when laser light scatters from molecules in the sample, and they match the spectra to those in a built-in library for various drugs, analogs, drug precursors, and cutting agents.

Given the complexity of the crisis, any changes and solution may create a cascading effect, good or bad. The society needs to tackle this with a system-wide approach, involving every sector and everybody.

Why Is There an Opioid Crisis? Credit: SciShow

Source: C&EN

About the Author
  • With years of experience in biomedical R & D, Daniel is also very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles.
You May Also Like
NOV 11, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 11, 2018
Rocket Lab Successfully Sends Electron Rocket on its First Commercial Flight
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket quickly became of the most prominent means of commercial and private satellite launches, but sending such a massive rocket t...
NOV 12, 2018
Plants & Animals
NOV 12, 2018
Newly-Discovered Tea Plant Naturally Exhibits Little or No Caffeine
Tea is perhaps one of nature’s purest flavored drinks, and it can be brewed from not much more than some hot water and lightly-processed tea plant le...
NOV 28, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 28, 2018
NASA Lucy Mission to Visit Jupiter's Trojan Asteroids is Poised to Launch in 2021
Why are we here, and where did we come from? Humankind has been asking these questions since the dawn of time, but legitimate answers appear to be highly e...
DEC 19, 2018
Chemistry & Physics
DEC 19, 2018
Novel Imaging Technique Enables Real-time Monitoring of Drug-induced Protein-protein Interaction
Protein-protein interactions (PPIs) are a common cellular phenomenon in which two or more protein molecules have close, specific physical contact that's driven by the electrostatic forces. PI...
DEC 28, 2018
Chemistry & Physics
DEC 28, 2018
Research Raises Hopes of Making Long-lasting Fluoride-based Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are the dominant player of electricity storage at the moment. They are being used to power a large variety of equipment, anything fro...
FEB 13, 2019
Plants & Animals
FEB 13, 2019
Many Pet Goldfish Never Reach Their Life Expectancy, and Here's Why
Goldfish are a favorite pet among both adults and children, but most pet goldfish are lucky to survive for just five years before kicking the bucket despit...
Loading Comments...