October 11, 2017
The most pressing drug epidemic of our time is the opioid crisis. Ravaging affluent and destitute neighborhoods alike, no one is safe from their addictive qualities. Fortunately, the Treasure Coast is fighting back against this epidemic. Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Sciences located in Port St. Lucie, Florida, is currently working on a series of projects that could provide substantial treatment to those who are affected by this crisis. Torrey Pines is a non-profit biomedical research institute working to advance the understanding of human disease and the improvement of human health. For over 25 years, the researchers at Torrey Pines have been attempting to find an alternative to opioids and find new methods of pain prevention. Scientists on the Treasure Coast are working hard to beat the opioid epidemic.
Opioids work by binding themselves to the brain’s opioid receptors, which in turn, produce feelings of pleasure. The three major opioid receptors in the brain are the Mu (μ), Kappa (κ), and Delta (δ) receptors. Stimulation of the Mu receptor can provide feelings of reward and pleasure; however, overstimulation of the Mu receptor can cause central respiratory depression which halts breathing and can lead to death. Respiratory depression is a serious problem and to address this, scientists developed the drug known as Naloxone to treat opioid overdose. Naloxone, when administered, restores an overdosing individual’s ability to breathe thus saving him or her from a potentially fatal overdose. One of Torrey Pines’ goals is to identify a compound that has the ability to alleviate pain, like an opioid, but is devoid of these potential catastrophic effects.
Lawrence Toll, PhD, a scientist at Torrey Pines, is actively working to combat the opioid epidemic by researching the effects of various compounds on the brain’s major dopaminergic pathways. In his work, Toll has targeted a fourth, less commonly studied, opioid receptor titled the Nociceptin receptor, otherwise known as the NOP. By studying the way that opioids interact with both the NOP and the Mu opioid receptors, the goal is to identify compounds that can alleviate pain through different biological pathways to reduce the side effects of today’s opioid pain relievers.
One of the largest assets that Torrey Pines possesses is a massive library of chemical compounds. With the number of compounds on hand numbering in the trillions, these libraries are utilized by taking compounds and scanning their libraries for compounds that are biologically active and could provide a new avenue of research that has not previously been attempted. Colette Dooley, PhD is focused on utilizing these libraries to find a novel chemical compound that can form the basis for a discovery effort to provide novel therapeutics to treat disease. For example, Dooley’s work at Torrey Pines with Richard Houghten, PhD, led to the identification of a compound that is in phase three clinical trials and wouldn’t have been found without the technology available at Torrey Pines.
An ongoing goal of Houghten’s research is to develop a compound that can alleviate pain through a different biological pathway to limit the risk of addiction and respiratory depression. Houghten highlighted the unique method that Torrey Pines uses to test compounds in their libraries. He explained that in order to test as many chemicals as possible, the scientists create mixtures of compounds to expose as many compounds from their libraries to the biological assay that they want to test. This allows them to use a much faster approach instead of testing a single chemical at a time. Dr. Houghten provided an example: “Let’s say I wanted to figure out what your favorite candy was. There’s no way for me to know it offhand, so the best way for me to figure it out is to offer you as many types of candy as possible and see which one you like best.” This is a similar concept to how they are testing their libraries against a variety of biological conditions. By seeing which compounds from the library perform best in the biological assay in question, they are able to determine which chemicals offer the most promising future for development into a human therapeutic.
All in all, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Sciences is working tirelessly to create new compounds, and locate new pain relieving pathways to limit the dependence on opioids in today’s medicinal markets. Already having contributed to certain successful compounds, this Treasure Coast firm continues to fight the opioid epidemic both locally and throughout the nation.
About the author
Andrew Bates is a Treasure Coast native, having graduated from Martin County High School in 2015. He is a junior attending Duke University majoring in Political Science and Russian. In the future, he plans to attend law school and work in either Corporate or International Law with an Eastern European focus.