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Could Trump’s COVID treatment be the remedy for America’s opioid epidemic?

  • The highly successful Covid treatment could be repurposed as a pain reliever with less risk than opioids
  • Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made to fit perfectly on specific nerve cells to halt transmission of pain signals
  • The pain reliever could help bring down the tens of thousands of deaths caused by opioids annually
  • Scientists attempt to turn antibody therapy into non-addictive painkiller

A therapy that rose to prominence during the Covid pandemic and was even used to treat Donald Trump may help to ease the deadly opioid overdose epidemic in the US, scientists hope.

Monoclonal antibodies — or virus-fighting proteins made in a lab — fight off infections by stopping the virus from invading cells and slashing the risk of being hospitalized with the disease.

Now scientists are on a path towards using this treatment to alleviate chronic pain, that leaves sufferers including arthritis and cancer patients needing to take up to several pills a day for months — risking addiction.

They are designing an antibody that could bind to nerve cells to stop them sending persistent pain signals to the brain.

The research at the University of California, Davis is still in the early stages, and it will be years before it reaches hospitals or pharmacy shelves.

But scientists hope within years they will have developed a non-addictive monthly injection that serves as an alternative to opioids such as morphine, which are used as a last resort for patients with chronic pain typically after surgery. 

It could also be used to help those on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like arthritis and cancer patients, who may have been taking several pills a day for months.

America’s overdose deaths surged to a record nearly 108,000 fatalities last year, a 15 per cent rise compared to the number in 2020 — though the pandemic made it harder to obtain both legal and illegal drugs. 

Of the 108,000 overdose deaths last year, 85 per cent of them involved an opioid such as fentanyl or one issued on prescription.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis are hoping to develop an alternative painkiller to opioids that would not be addictive. Pictured above are the steps required to build the alternative. They have already completed the first, iden
Scientists are hoping to develop a non-opioid pain reliever using monoclonal antibody technology.  Right: Trump pictured at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center after testing positive for Covid in October 2020. He received an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment to help fight his infection
The above graph shows the number of overdose deaths involving opioids, and is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It reveals that the fatalities hit a record high in 2020, the latest year the figures are available for. Overdose deaths from opioids account for about 80 percent of all overdose deaths

Monoclonal antibody treatments were not borne out of the pandemic. The first monoclonal antibody was approved by federal regulators in 1986 for use in preventing kidney transplant rejection. 

But scientists advanced the technology so much in recent years that the therapy became a highly effective tool for preventing cases of severe Covid disease.

In October 2020, Donald Trump was treated with a then-experimental antibody cocktail made by Regeneron after testing positive for Covid. 

It was credited with the former President’s rapid recovery which saw him host several rallies during the final weeks of the race for the White House — just days after testing positive on October 2.

The treatment worked by binding to the virus’ spike protein which it uses to invade cells, stopping an infection in its tracks. 

Now, UC Davis researchers aim to create antibodies that can bind to three specific channels on nerve cells that send pain signals to the brain.

‘Recent breakthroughs in structural and computational biology — using computers to understand and model biological systems — have set the stage for applying new approaches to create antibodies as superior therapeutic candidates to treat chronic pain,’ said Dr Vladimir Yarov-Yarovoy, the principal investigator.

By blocking the pain transmitters, the scientists hope it will relieve chronic pain for up to a month — about how long antibodies last in the body. 

‘For patients with chronic pain, that’s exactly what you need,’ Dr Yarov-Yarovoy said. 

‘They experience pain, not for days, but weeks and months.’

He added: ‘The expectation is that the circulating antibodies will be able to provide sustained pain relief for weeks.’

The team are currently designing the antibodies, which will then be tested on human tissue in a lab setting before moving to animal trials. 

The treatment – which would be delivered intravenously – is years away from reaching humans.

But it could be a game-changer for the one in five Americans are suffering from chronic pain.

The UC Davis researchers received $1.5million (£1.4m) in grants last April from the National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s primary agency for biomedical and public health research, to fund the project.  

One of the main challenges will be replicating the exact structure of these three highly complex channels. Computer software programs are being used to overcome this. One such programme, known as Rosetta, allows researchers to create a three-dimensional virtual protein models and work out which one fits perfectly into the three channels (shown)

The goal, Dr Yarov-Yarovoy said, is to create antibodies in the lab that fit into three specific voltage-gated sodium ions in nerve cells like keys in locks. 

One of the main challenges will be replicating the exact structure of these three highly complex channels. 

Computer software programs are being used to overcome this.

One such programme, known as Rosetta, allows researchers to create a three-dimensional virtual protein models and work out which one fits perfectly into the three channels.  

The AlphaFold serves as a fact-checker, re-analysing the protein designs from Rosetta to make sure the dimensions are correct.

The experiment, if successful, would prove instrumental in curbing the persistent opioid addiction crisis fueled by many doctors aggressively overprescribing as well as underestimating the risk of becoming dependent on the drugs.

More than 260,000 Americans have died from overdosing on prescription opioid drugs in the past two decades, CDC data shows.

Overdose deaths involving opioids have been on a relatively steady incline since 2010, when they sat at around 21,000. That rate jumped to 47,600 in 2017 and remained high at nearly 69,000 by 2020.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl drove up overdoses more than any other drug in 2021, leading to more than 71,000 deaths, up 23 percent from the year before.


Read more:

Monoclonal antibodies show promise as safer alternative to opioids for chronic pain relief – Study Finds

health.ucdavis.e…

Overview | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center

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