Scientists are working on a new drug that works like medical marijuana to treat pain—but without getting you high

Medical marijuana cigarettes.
Medical marijuana cigarettes.
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The opioid epidemic in America has researchers on the hunt for new ways to treat pain.

Opioids are powerful painkillers, usually prescribed to patients with severe or chronic pain, like those who have had a major injury, surgery, or cancer. They’re also highly addictive. Frequently, patients taking legitimate prescription opioids wind up either abusing or overdosing on them, or turning to street versions of the drugs like heroin. Opioids—both legal and illegal—caused 28,000 deaths in America in 2014.

One of the ways that researchers are trying to minimize the number of opioid related deaths is by relying more on medical marijuana. And on Nov. 8, Americans voted to raise the number of states where medical marijuana legal to 30. But some patients want just weed’s pain relieving abilities, without the mental and body high that comes with it. (Others, of course, live in states where medical marijuana is still illegal.)

On Nov. 14, researchers from Indiana University announced they successfully tested a compound that may have similar strength to opioids and marijuana, but without the risk of addiction in the case of the former or the mental and physical highs in the case of the latter. The work,yet to be published, was presented  at the annual Society for Neuroscience Conference in San Diego, California.

The pain-neutralizing compound was created by researchers from Northeastern University. It’s a type of  positive allosteric modulator (PAM) that binds to a receptor in the brain that picks up cannabinoids called CB1. Cannabinoids are active chemicals in weed that can reduce chronic pain.

To test its efficacy against nerve pain, Indiana University researchers gave mice chemotherapy drugs that cause severe nerve pain. The mice began moving gingerly and avoiding cold, both of which are signs of pain. After being given the new compound—which the researchers are calling CB1 PAM—the mice started moving around freely.

So freely, in fact, that it seems like they weren’t feeling any of the movement-depressing highs typically associated with marijuana. Additionally, the drug lasted much longer than typical medical marijuana treatments, which lose their efficacy over time as the body gains tolerance for it.

Because the mice didn’t appear to have the same physical high that weed produces and didn’t require more doses to mitigate their pain over time, the researchers think the compound can treat pain—without any unwanted side effects. “We found that the compound did not produce reward on its own, so it’s unlikely that a CB1 PAM would be abused as a recreational drug,” Andrea Hohmann, a neuroscientist at Indiana University and author of the paper, said in a statement.

Of course, chemical compounds that can treat mouse pain effectively have a long way to go before they can be used as drugs in humans. But this work is another step forward in the quest to develop pain-relieving drugs that work without the devastating addictive nature of opioids.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated one of the research institutions.