An Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences researcher is searching for ways to improve pain management and slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Craig W. Stevens, Ph.D., OSU-CHS professor of pharmacology, is analyzing the evolution of opioid receptors in the brain and examining the interaction of medications with immune cells in the brain.
“Opioid analgesic drugs, such as morphine or hydrocodone, attach to protein molecules in the brain called opioid receptors. The amazing thing about these receptors is they exist in all vertebrate animals,” he said. “We are examining how opioid receptors have evolved from the first animals on earth – fish, amphibians and reptiles – all the way through to higher vertebrate animals and humans.”
Research has shown that opioid receptors evolved to become more effective in relieving pain in humans than ever before. By analyzing those evolutionary changes, Stevens envisions developing an artificial opiate receptor for use in pain management that could be introduced into the body via gene therapy.
More than 100 million Americans suffer with chronic pain, yet many are receiving suboptimal treatment, according to a report released earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health. The study called for increased research into developing new and improved methods of treatment for chronic pain.
“Because we know how the opioid receptor binds to drugs like morphine, we can design a receptor that will be more effective,” he said. “This could provide increased pain relief for millions of people who suffer from chronic pain.”
In a separate research avenue, Stevens is collaborating with Randall L. Davis, Ph.D., director of the OSU-CHS biomedical sciences graduate program and associate professor of pharmacology, to examine the effect of opioid compounds on immune cell function in the brain.
“It has been known for a while that in certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the immune cells in the brain go awry,” he said. “The cells undergo processes that cause neuroinflammation, which in turn exacerbates the disease.”
Research indicates that chronic inflammation in the brain plays a role in neurodegenerative disease progression.
Stevens said the research team has discovered that certain opioid agents – known as antagonists – can suppress inflammation in the brain.
“Our research has great potential because these agents are already clinically available,” he said. “This could lead to the development of therapies that could prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”