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From left: Todd Vanderah, director, Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center; Frank Porreca, principal investigator, Center for Excellence in Addiction Studies; Michael Dake, senior VP, University of Arizona Health Sciences; Kayse Shrum, president, Oklahoma State University; Robert C. Robbins, president, University of Arizona; Johnny Stephens, president, OSU Center for Health Sciences; and Don Kyle, CEO, National Center for Wellness & Recovery.

OSU-CHS, University of Arizona to revolutionize pain and addiction research

Friday, October 21, 2022

Media Contact: Harrison Hill | Senior Research Communications Specialist | 405-744-5827 |

Since 1803 when morphine was first extracted from opium, opioids have been the standard by which medications to treat acute pain are measured.

Throughout most of the 20th century, health professionals acknowledged that long-term opioid therapy was associated with increased risk of addiction, increased disability and the lack of efficacy over time.

Despite this widely accepted theory, the medical use of opioids began to increase substantially during the 1990s leading to epidemic levels of misuse, non-medical substance use and death from overdose.

Still today, few alternatives exist for the treatment of acute and chronic pain, leaving unmet medical needs and communities desperate for help.

In search of answers, researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences recently established an innovative partnership to discover and develop modern therapeutics for the treatment of chronic pain.

“We recognize that by combining forces, we are forming a wonderful partnership in the southwest region of the U.S. which has been impacted hard by the opioid crisis,” said Dr. Don Kyle, CEO of the National Center for Wellness and Recovery at OSU-CHS. “We are aligned in our mission, scientific approach and infrastructure that connects treatment physicians with basic scientists.”

The synergistic nature of the research required is perfectly modeled in the partnership between UArizona Health Sciences and OSU-CHS.

The University of Arizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center (CPAC) and National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded Center of Excellence for Addiction Studies (CEAS) bring together world-class laboratory spaces along with preclinical and clinical expertise that can promote development of novel, nonopioid therapies based on existing chemical entities from NCWR as well as new chemistry and biology that can be jointly pursued by the three academic groups.

“There is an undeniable link between opioids and pain, and the other crisis that exists in the U.S. is the pain crisis,” said Dr. Frank Porreca, a world-renowned pain researcher, associate research director of CPAC and principal investigator of the CEAS grant. 

“In America, more people live with chronic pain than with cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. We don’t have medications for the treatment of this type of pain, which underscores the fact that we need to discover something that can help people who live with chronic pain,” Porreca said.

Answers could be found among more than 18,000 novel molecules representing decades of research conducted by scientists at Purdue Pharma. When Purdue ended its drug research program in 2015, the research and the molecules sat untouched until 2019 when Kyle suggested the molecules be made available to OSU’s NCWR.

“Many of the molecules are very raw chemical structures that have never been tested but are molecules we know will bind to one of the opiate receptors,” said Dr. Todd Vanderah, director of the UArizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and a BIO5 Institute member.

“In my role prior to joining OSU, we studied the 100 prior years of opioid-related chemistry literature and combined this with state-of-the-art pharmacological techniques and instrumentation, with an eye toward emerging mechanisms that held promise for separating opioid-strength pain relief from unwanted opioid effects,” said Kyle, a chemist and former vice president of discovery for Purdue Pharma.

“Ultimately, we designed new molecules that might at least serve as research tools but that might also become new drug candidates, and therefore would be valuable to advance the science of pain and addiction.”

NCWR also has access to nearly 50,000 human biosamples from patients enrolled in more than 20 Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials involving opioids and non-opioids. The center has begun collecting additional biosamples from patients suffering from addiction or who are in recovery and undergoing treatment at NCWR treatment centers in Oklahoma.

These unique assets, collected over more than two decades, enable research into risk factors, causes and potential treatments for addiction and chronic pain.

The goals of the UAHS and OSU-CHS research centers are also aligned with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative.

“One of the beautiful things about our partnerships is that even without knowing what researchers like Dr. Porreca and Dr. Vanderah were studying, we already made molecules that bind to the various targets they’re interested in,” Kyle said. “We’re very excited to test those molecules and see if we can confirm what they suspect from their biology work using a molecule.”

Photo By: Kris Hanning

Story By: Deanne Vick | Research Matters Magazine

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