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UArizona researchers closer to developing pain drug that cuts opioids’ addictiveness

AZ Inno

University of Arizona researchers say they are closer to developing a pain relief treatment that dramatically diminishes the danger of opioids.

The research is focused on a new compound created at UArizona’s Health Sciences department that reduces the sensation of pain by regulating a biological channel linked to pain, the university said.

The compound, called Regulonix Compound 194, can be combined with low doses of morphine and virtually eliminate its addictive qualities. That’s without reducing the morphine’s ability to relieve pain — something that nonaddictive alternatives have so far been unable to do.

Initial findings were published recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The research team was led by Rajesh Khanna, Ph.D., associate director of the UArizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, professor of pharmacology in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and a member of the BIO5 Institute.

“Drug discovery for chronic pain is at the forefront of this research, and it’s being amplified by the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic,” Khanna said in a statement. “Drug discovery is a very arduous process. Our lab looked at a fundamental mechanism of pain, came up with a way to differentiate it from those before us and found a compound that has potential as a new non-opioid treatment for pain.”

In animal testing, Khanna’s team combined Compound 194 with a low, non-addictive dose of synthetic opioids, and that proved to be as effective in relieving pain but without the side effects and addictive qualities of drugs like Percocet, Demerol, Oxycontin, Tramadol, Morphine and others, the researchers said.

The team focused on a sodium ion channel that has been linked to pain and that has been the subject of previous, unsuccessful approaches that have tried to block the channel. Researchers took a different tack this time, instead seeking to regulate the channel with Compound 194, finding it to be successful in reversing pain in six different models that they used.

They also said they found that the compound may affect the body’s naturally occurring opioid system, activating endogenous opioids that in turn activate receptors that produce changes such as pain relief — without motor performance issues, depressive behaviors or addiction.

Compound now licensed

The compound has been patented and licensed to startup Regulonix LLC through Tech Launch Arizona — the UArizona’s office set up for commercializing inventions that emerge from university research.

Regulonix was founded by Khanna and fellow BIO5 Institute member Vijay Goakhale, Ph.D., in 2016 to address the opioid epidemic by developing nonaddictive alternatives.

UAVenture Capital, a Tucson based risk capital firm, funded Regulonix.

“This is a breakthrough in the management of opioid use and, moreover, abuse,” Fletcher McCusker, CEO and Founder of UAVenture Capital, said in a statement. “If the human data follows the results in small animals, morphine and similar drugs could be rendered virtually harmless, while maintaining the pain relief attributes of the original drug.”

Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona, called the potential impact of the compound “monumental.”

“Having worked with the team for a number of years to advance this research toward market readiness, we’re thrilled for this news and the implications for the startup,” Hockstad said in a statement.

The research team has been working with the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to optimize the compound by improving its half-life and its drug-like properties, UArizona said.

After those improvements, the next step will be to file for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials.


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