Novel molecular strategies and targets for opioid drug discovery for the treatment of chronic pain

Keith M. Olson, Wei Lei, Attila Keresztes, Justin Lavigne, John M. Streicher

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Opioid drugs like morphine and fentanyl are the gold standard for treating moderate to severe acute and chronic pain. However, opioid drug use can be limited by serious side effects, including constipation, tolerance, respiratory suppression, and addiction. For more than 100 years, we have tried to develop opioids that decrease or eliminate these liabilities, with little success. Recent advances in understanding opioid receptor signal transduction have suggested new possibilities to activate the opioid receptors to cause analgesia, while reducing or eliminating unwanted side effects. These new approaches include designing functionally selective ligands, which activate desired signaling cascades while avoiding signaling cascades that are thought to provoke side effects. It may also be possible to directly modulate downstream signaling through the use of selective activators and inhibitors. Separate from downstream signal transduction, it has also been found that when the opioid system is stimulated, various negative feedback systems are upregulated to compensate, which can drive side effects. This has led to the development of multi-functional molecules that simultaneously activate the opioid receptor while blocking various negative feedback receptor systems including cholecystokinin and neurokinin-1. Other novel approaches include targeting heterodimers of the opioid and other receptor systems which may drive side effects, and making endogenous opioid peptides druggable, which may also reduce opioid mediated side effects. Taken together, these advances in our molecular understanding provide a path forward to break the barrier in producing an opioid with reduced or eliminated side effects, especially addiction, which may provide relief for millions of patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-110
Number of pages14
JournalYale Journal of Biology and Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2017


  • Chronic pain
  • Drug discovery
  • Functional selectivity
  • Novel strategies
  • Novel targets
  • Opioid

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Novel molecular strategies and targets for opioid drug discovery for the treatment of chronic pain'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this