Research Therapies — 26 November 2014

Side effects to medications are usually something we want to minimise, but a team at the University of Tasmania is taking a fresh look at side effects of opioid drugs to find new treatments.

Dr Nikolas Dietis is leading the team that is focused on the usually unintended effects of opioids on cancer cells, insulin secretion and mood disorders and flipping them for a positive use.

“What we call side effects, so these are the peripheral effects of opioids, we would like to explore that a little bit more and try to bring back those side effects as actually wanted effects,” he said.

Examples of known side effects are constipation and the anti-inflammatory properties that opioid medication such as morphine or codeine has, but most recently the research team has been focusing on the mood disorders.

A small grant from the School of Medicine has allowed Dr Dietis and his colleagues to look further into the effects of opioids on conditions that do not have one specific type of medication, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We wanted to focus on depression and chronic anxiety because of the fact that we know that opioids can relieve anxiety,” Dr Dietis said.bigstockphoto_Prescription_Medications_2484425

“At the moment the only agents and the only drugs that we’re currently using for depression or anxiety have a particular mode of action.”

The research will be looking at how opioids interact with the brain to create a euphoric feeling which does not increase the level of serotonin like other drugs that are currently prescribed for depression.

“The only drugs that can be effective at the moment are some of the antidepressants, but those don’t really have the right effectiveness that we would like to see,” he said.

“PTSD at the moment uses only cognitive behaviour therapy as the main therapeutical strategy.”

The team will then take this information from the research to try and create new drugs that might be more effective against mood disorders.

Dr Dietis said he was excited by the new focus that would be put onto the so-called side effects of opioids, and how they could be used as an advantage.

“We’re trying to bring those into a wanted effect rather than side effect, and I think that’s going to be happening more in the next five years,” he said.

“Most of the research [in the past] is focusing on pain relief, how to produce better opioids for cancer pain or for chronic pain and they’re not really working on effects like that.”

The research is only in initial laboratory stages at the moment, but Dr Dietis is hopeful it will eventually end up contributing to prescription drugs.

“We will see more of this investigation and research on not necessarily the pain relief effect of the opioids but all the other effects that [are] coming with them,” he said.

The team working on the research at UTAS consists of Associate Professor Nuri Guven, Professor Kim Flemingham, Dr Jason Smith and Dr Nikolas Dietis.

This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 25 November 2014.

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