Weaning ourselves off opioids: Monash researchers use nanotechnology for pain relief

Researchers at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology (CBNS) have created a nanoparticle that could improve the properties of painkillers by delivering them directly to the source of pain.

The international collaboration with researchers from the University of Santiago  (Chile), Columbia University (USA) and the University of Queensland has been developing the new technology in the hope of replacing existing methods of pain relief such as opioids, which can have serious side-effects.

In a paper published today in Nature Nanotechnology, the team featuring PhD candidate Paulina Ramírez-García, and group leaders Dr Nicholas Veldhuis and Professor Tom Davis from MIPS and CBNS, reveal how they have developed a nanoparticle drug carrier that can bypass the nerve cell surface and effectively interrupt the pain signal from within the cell, enabling greater relief from pain, with lower drug doses and fewer side effects.

Paulina Ramirez-Garcia and Dr Nik Veldhuis in the CBNS lab

“We know that when pain occurs, certain receptors move to the interior of spinal neurons to transmit pain signals. When we take painkillers, these drugs freely distribute throughout the body, to not only block pain but also act on other tissues to produce side-effects,” said Ms Ramírez-García.
“To overcome this, we harnessed nanotechnology to design nanoparticles that can selectively deliver drugs to these internal pain transmitting centres, concentrating the drug inside neurons where it is most effective at stopping the pain signal.”

To validate this new approach to pain management, the preclinical experiments focussed on delivering a drug known as Aprepitant using these pain-relieving nanoparticles. Aprepitant had previously failed in clinical pain trials and is now only used in the clinic for treating severe nausea associated with chemotherapy.

According to co-researcher Dr Veldhuis, this technology could be adapted to deliver other drugs, and has potential to address the growing global opioid epidemic.

”While opioids are still a highly effective treatment for debilitating pain, the risk of long-term dependence and other unwanted side effects can be damaging for individuals and families,” Dr Veldhuis said.

“If we can use existing drugs in a more targeted away, there is significant potential to provide chronic pain sufferers with a non-opioid treatment option for pain relief.”

The team will continue to explore the benefit of nanoparticle vehicles for improving other pain relief medications.