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Science & Tech

Editors’ Pick: Solving the Pain Puzzle

BU lab advances search for nonaddictive pain reliever

(Part 2 of a 3-part series on BU’s Ignition Awards)

During the Civil War, wounded soldiers were sent home with vials of morphine, and thousands became addicted. The nausea, chills, and sweating of withdrawal were known as “the army disease.” Today, with a much wider array of pain relievers available to millions of Americans who suffer chronic pain from cancer, arthritis, nerve damage, and other maladies, painkiller addiction continues to be a problem. In fact, according to federal figures, it appears to be on the rise.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, emergency room visits by people misusing the prescription narcotic fentanyl increased nearly 14-fold, to 8,000 nationwide, between 2000 and 2004. And last year, the White House Office of Drug Control Policy reported that abuse of the prescription pain reliever OxyContin rose 40 percent among 12th graders in just three years.

The need for new, nonaddictive painkillers led David Farb, chairman and professor in the department of pharmacology in BU’s School of Medicine, to develop pregnanolone hemisuccinate, a compound that acts on different nervous-system receptors than do addictive, opiate-based narcotics. In mice studies conducted by Farb and his research team, the compound has been effective at killing pain without causing addiction. 

To help speed the drug to human trials, which Farb estimates could begin within one to two years, BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) awarded Farb one of last spring’s three Ignition Awards, each about $50,000. Four times a year, with the help of a five-person committee of senior venture capitalists from the Boston area, OTD selects Ignition Award winners from applications submitted by BU professors or students whose research is ready to make the leap from the laboratory to the business world.

“The Ignition Awards program exists to recognize research that will someday translate into commercially available technologies, products, or treatments,” says Stanford Willie, executive director of OTD. “This first batch of winning projects represents diverse and potentially lifesaving applications in health and medicine.”

Read part 3 of the Ignition Award series on Monday, January 8, or click here. To view Part 1 of the series, "Sniffing Out Cancer," click here.
This story was originally published on BU Today on July 25, 2006.