University of Texas at Dallas Startup Aims to Develop Non-opioid Pain Relief Drugs

Ted Price used to believe that people who abused opioids suffered from a failure of will. But after a freak spinal cord injury in 2006, Price’s views changed.“I could see [the pain]. It was bright. That’s how I describe it. It felt like there was a vise around my leg that was on fire. ... It was unbelievable how awful it was,” Price said.The opioids that doctors gave him didn’t do anything to help. Surgery alleviated the pain, but the scars of how much everything hurt still haunt him.Price believes people become hooked out of their desperation for relief — and they’ll use opioids even though the drugs are addictive and can result in overdoses. Opioid abuse “comes out of a desire that people have to make pain go away,” Price said. “And anybody that’s ever had pain for any period of time knows what that feels like. You want it to go away.”Price, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, researches chronic pain and helped start a local company, CerSci Therapeutics, that aims to develop drugs to alleviate pain without the addictive properties of opioids. The company is headquartered at UT-Dallas’ Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The institute acts as an incubator space for companies that have their roots in the university. Along with funding from private investors, CerSci recently received grants from the National Institutes of Health that add up to nearly $1.8 million.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription opioids are involved in more overdose deaths than any other drugs used in the U.S. Since 1999, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled, along with sales of the drugs.The scope of the problem has gotten so large that last month the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, a group President Donald Trump set up in March, filed an interim report urging the president to declare a national emergency to help combat the issue. On Thursday, the president said the crisis is a "national emergency " in response to a question from a reporter.Price said there are multiple reasons why opioid use became so widespread, at least among doctors prescribing them.One was a push to help patients who were in pain by giving them opioids. Additionally, he said doctors began prescribing opioids for 30 days when only a few days' worth was needed. Doctors also started prescribing opioids for chronic pain even though the drugs hadn’t been proved effective for that kind of pain.“Everybody involved was trying to do the right thing. But the science just wasn't there to support what was happening one way or another,” Price said. “And as more people started to work on this issue, they started to find that not only is it unlikely that opioids are helping, there still have been very few, if any, clinical trials to show that opioids work for chronic pain. ... The opioids actually make it worse.”CerSci, which started in 2015, is working on two drugs that alleviate pain and are not opioid-based.Scott Dax, a medicinal chemist and the company's chief scientific officer, discovered the molecule associated with one of the drugs.The drug, if approved by the FDA, would give doctors the ability to treat patients in pain without engaging reward centers and inhibiting respiratory centers in the brain, Dax said. They’re currently testing the molecule and drug in animal trials.Dax and the team believe the compound could help replace opioids in post-surgical recovery and relieving painful nerve damage involved with diabetes and chemotherapy.Lucas Rodriguez, CerSci’s CEO, said their drugs can’t fully replace opioids. He said opioids are still very effective in traumatic procedures involving gunshots, broken femurs and other major injuries. But the team at CerSci thinks its products can greatly decrease the amount of opioids prescribed.“We believe that in a post-surgical pain setting, you can go home with a prescription for [our products] and not have to worry about your kids getting into the medicine cabinet and stuff like that because they’re just not addictive or respiratory depressants,” he said.David Genecov, a craniofacial surgeon based in Dallas, was one of the earlier investors in the company.  Continue reading...

Copyright The Dallas Morning News
Contact Us