Southern Research Awarded 5-Year, $4.5M NIH Grant to Develop Opioid Drugs with Diminished Side Effects

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – August 12, 2015 – Southern Research won a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health to develop opioid drugs for the treatment of chronic pain. These candidate compounds are being developed to have fewer adverse effects than currently marketed opioid pain-relief medications, such as morphine. The award is for $4.5 million for up to five years, under award number R01DA038635.

The funds will be applied to the discovery and development of improved therapeutic agents for the treatment of pain. Research will involve the design and synthesis of new compounds and their evaluation in vitro and in vivo to identify candidate compounds with potential for further development.

Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans. The economic burden of chronic pain in the U.S. was recently estimated at approximately $600 billion per year – greater than the combined annual cost of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Opioids are currently the most useful treatments available for moderate to severe acute and chronic pain, but their therapeutic use is limited due to their tendency to produce adverse side effects, including drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, constipation, and respiratory depression. With longer term use, abuse is a factor including physical dependence, and addiction. Opioid medications include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, and related drugs.

“There is a crucial, medical need for novel painkillers that are as effective as morphine, without the significant side effects,” said Subramaniam Ananthan, Ph.D., principal investigator and principal research scientist in drug discovery at Southern Research. “We recently discovered novel opioid compounds possessing analgesic activity with diminished propensity to induce tolerance. The goal of this grant will be to further the development of a potential compound with improved bioavailability for clinical development.”

The research will be led by Ananthan and performed by a team of scientists at Southern Research and the University of New England, with expertise in medicinal chemistry, molecular modeling, in vitro and in vivo opioid pharmacology, and drug metabolism/pharmacokinetics (DMPK).

“From our previous research, we have a better understanding of the neurobiology of opioid systems, pain, and addiction, and the scientists at Southern Research were able to synthesize lead molecules that interact with the opioid receptors in a novel way, providing pain relief, while having greatly reduced side effects,” said Edward Bilsky, Ph.D., University of New England vice president for research and scholarship and professor of pharmacology. “This new grant award from the National Institutes of Health is timely and critical for advancing the project towards the goal of having a clinical drug candidate for treatment of acute and chronic pain and will enable us to further refine these molecules and validate them for testing in humans.”

Bilsky has collaborated with Ananthan for over 20 years in the fields of opioid pharmacology, pain, and drug addiction.

“Dr. Ananthan is a highly-knowledgeable medicinal chemist with extensive experience in drug discovery and an exceptional publication record,” said Mark J. Suto, Ph.D., vice president of drug discovery at Southern Research. “The team of researchers is well qualified to handle this project, and they have a long-standing record of successful collaboration. I look forward to their progress.”

About Southern Research
Southern Research is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization with nearly 500 scientists and engineers working across four divisions: drug discovery, drug development, engineering, and energy and environment.

  • We’re developing 18 drugs to combat various forms of cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney disease, and Parkinson’s, among others.
  • We’ve developed seven FDA-approved cancer drugs.
  • We’re developing new medical devices.
  • We’re helping to launch manned missions to Mars.
  • We’re making the air and water cleaner here on Earth.

We work on behalf of the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, major aerospace firms, utility companies, and other private and government organizations as we solve the world’s hardest problems.

Southern Research, founded in 1941, is headquartered in Birmingham with additional laboratories and offices in Wilsonville and Huntsville, Frederick, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina, Cartersville, Georgia, and Houston.