NEW ORLEANS—A new drug with less risk for addiction and overdose compared to currently available opioid medications is showing promise, according to a recently published research article.

The drug, developed at Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and Tulane University , also appears to shorten time to recovery from pain.

Called ZH853, the new drug was developed by James Zadina, PhD, director of the neuroscience laboratory at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System and a professor at Tulane University School of Medicine.

The goal was to avoid some of the most troubling side effects of currently available opioid medications. Morphine, for example, can cause depressed breathing, which can lead to death.

While numerous studies have identified the proinflammatory, pronociceptive effects of morphine which ultimately exacerbate pain, an article published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation pointed out that the novel endomorphin analog ZH853 does not produce proinflammatory effects on its own and gives potent, long-lasting analgesia. The animal study investigated whether ZH853’s lack of interaction with the neuroimmune system reduces the risk of prolonged pain.1

Researchers explained that a major concern when treating pain with opioids is the potential for misuse or addiction. In earlier studies, Zadina and his colleagues found that rats given morphine showed drug-seeking behaviors, while the rats given ZH853 did not. 

Morphine also can cause pain symptoms to last longer, enabling acute pain to become chronic. “A drug that prevents the transition from acute to chronic relapsing pain would represent a true breakthrough in drug development for pain management,” Zadina said.

The recent study demonstrated that ZH853 was as effective as morphine at relieving pain in rats. While morphine aggravated immune function and increased the length of time the subjects felt pain, ZH853, reduced the length of time the rats experienced pain, indicating anti-inflammatory effects, according to the researchers.

“The results of these studies indicate the potential of this drug to be safer than morphine,” Zadina explained.

Study authors concluded, “ZH853 has a favorable side effect profile versus morphine and provides superior analgesia in a number of pain states. We now know that chronic use of this compound reduces time spent in a chronic pain state, the opposite of common opioids like morphine, and reduces the risk of LS, making ZH853 an excellent candidate for clinical development in humans for inflammatory and postoperative pain.”

Further research is needed before ZH853 can be prescribed for pain, including clinical trials in human subjects, according to the study team, which said trials could start within two years.

1. Feehan AK, Zadina JE. Morphine immunomodulation prolongs inflammatory and postoperative pain while the novel analgesic ZH853 accelerates recovery and protects against latent sensitization. J Neuroinflammation. 2019 May 21;16(1):100. doi: 10.1186/s12974-019-1480-x. PubMed PMID: 31109346; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6528320.