AUSTIN (KXAN) — As law enforcement agencies and community groups look for solutions to the escalating abuse of opioids in the United States, they may find an answer in the hands of a few University of Texas at Austin scientists.

A little over a month ago, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency.”  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids include heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and pain relievers that can be obtained through prescriptions like oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine. While opioid prescription pain relievers can be useful for short term pain relief, regular use — even as prescribed — can lead to dependence and overdose.

But what if there were a way to prescribe pain relievers that didn’t lead to addiction? That’s what a group of chemists at UT are working to find out. Stephen Martin and James Sahn say their team has discovered a powerful new pain reliever that works in a previously unknown pathway of the brain.

Martin, a chemistry professor at UT, explained that nearly a decade ago his lab discovered a class of molecules which bind very tightly to sigma receptors.

“And these receptors that we stumbled into really were receptors that weren’t a subject of great interest in the pharmaceutical industry, we decided better than to compete with the pharmaceutical industry, we might play on the sidelines where they didn’t have a keen interest,” Martin said.

UT scientists Stephen Martin and James Sahn have discovered a new, non-addictive pain reliever compound.  (Photo Courtesy UT Austin).

He added that the drug they created which binds to these receptors also shows the potential to impact things like Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, and alcohol abuse disorders.

The synthetic compound they’ve created is known as UKH-1114. The scientists found it to work just as effectively in mice as a pain reliever called gabapentin, which is used to relieve nerve pain. But this synthetic compound actually works at a much lower dose and for a longer period of time than it’s gabapentin.

“Of course we want to avoid all the side effects associated with opioids, but because this class of compounds doesn’t target receptors associated with addiction and reward, we feel there’s a chance these types of compounds may be free of addictive properties,” said Sahn.

Now, these researchers will spend years working to prove that this compound is safe and not addictive to humans in hopes of combating the opioid abuse epidemic. Sahn explained this process could take up five to 10 years. These UT scientists have already filed for a patent for this compound

“We think once we get this far enough along and demonstrate this class of compounds has significant promise for treating pain by a new mechanism of action, we think that others including pharmaceutical companies will get involved and will facilitate the process in getting this from bench to bedside,” Sahn said.

If all the testing of this new compound goes well, the goal will be to get it into pill form.