By: Atara Neugroschl
It has been impossible to scroll through the news headlines without seeing an article about the opioid crisis. Recently, six companies were subpoenaed for information as part of an ongoing investigation regarding opioid-related misconduct. In October, a group of drug companies, including McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Teva, paid a $260 million settlement before being tried for their role in the opioid crisis. This crisis has stood on the center stage of politics for the past few months and has left politicians worried. But what are opioids, and why are they an issue? If opioids are in fact a major problem, what is being done to solve the epidemic?
Opioid is a term used to classify a large group of drugs that are derived from opium, the seed of opium poppy flowers, or any synthetic or semi-synthetic variation of the substance. This categorization includes a variety of both illegal and legal substances, including heroin, Vidocin, and morphine. When attached to the receptor proteins, the opioids activate, blocking pain signals from being transmitted to the brain. This prevents them from being translated by the brain into the sensation of pain. For this reason, opioids are often designed as painkillers, with varying potencies and uses.
While the earliest opioids were invented centuries ago, most people trace the start of the opioid crisis to the late 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies claimed that there were no addictive properties associated with opioid painkillers. As a result, prescription drug prices skyrocketed, and opioids became widespread. Only after opioids were popularized was it revealed that the pharmaceutical companies had been incorrect — opioids indeed do have strong addictive properties.
Opioids alter the chemistry of the brain, leading to a drug tolerance. Due to this developed tolerance, people increase their dose of the drugs, in order to continue experiencing the pain-relieving properties of opioids. This causes dependency, which often lead to addiction. Unfortunately, the addictive properties associated with opioids were discovered too late, and as a result, in 2017, the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services declared a public health emergency. It is estimated that over 130 people die every day due to an opioid-related drug overdose, while million others have opioid-use disorders.
While people of every age and background have been affected by opioids, this epidemic is of particular concern to college students. Adults aged 18-25 are cited as being most at-risk for substance abuse, putting college students in a vulnerable position. According to Dr. Patrice Malone, an expert at New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University, the number of college students with opioid prescriptions has increased by 343% between 1993 and 2005 and 7-12% of students on any college campus have an opioid-use disorder. These jarring statistics beg the question: what is being done to address this ever-growing epidemic?
Over the past few years, scientists have been searching for a non-addictive, healthier replacement for opioids. Recently, the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney filed a joint patent for a potential drug to replace opioids, based on a natural molecule they discovered in Penicillium fungus in estuarine mud. This newfound molecule binds to opioid receptors, which, with some chemical modifications, serves as a painkiller as potent as opioids. However, drug testing and trials are a lengthy and meticulous process, and it can take upwards of a decade before this idea hits the market as a new drug. For this reason, many scientists have been searching for short-term solutions for the millions of people currently addicted to opioids. One such solution that has already saved thousands of lives, is naloxone, commonly known by its brand name, NARCAN. Naloxone works by binding to opioid receptors, blocking opioids from attaching and effectively preventing, or reversing, the effects of the opioids. In fact, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention has reported that over 10,000 opioid overdoses were reversed with naloxone between 1996 and 2010.
While naloxone has had significant positive effects, and new replacements for opioids are on their way, the statistics for deaths by opioid overdose per year remains high. For this reason, pharmaceutical companies continue to be investigated for their part in hiding the negative impacts of opioids. Colleges have begun implementing educational programs and providing naloxone to students. Yet despite promising scientific discoveries, opioids remain the main form of pain relief in medicine today. The opioid crisis remains a crisis.