Chemistry professor finds possible addiction-free pain reliever enzyme

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) — Millions of Americans daily deal with pain, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse says some 1.7 million are suffering from substance abuse disorders that are related to opioid use.

Researchers are looking for non-addictive chronic pain treatment options that have few or no negative side effects, and a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia may have found one.

Ken Hsu and his graduate student, Myungsun Shin, have found an enzyme that can produce chemical signals controlling inflammation.

This enzyme, called diacylglycerol lipase-beta or DAGLb, could be used as a new drug to reduce pain.

During his postdoctoral training, Hsu developed selective molecules to inhibit DAGLb and reduce inflammation in a fashion similar to aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also called NSAIDS.

He also found these inhibitors could provide pain relief without gastrointestinal toxicity issues in preclinical models when used over a long term and without the addictive properties seen with opioids.

Hsu says studies at UVA in collaboration with Virginia Commonwealth University have found DAGLb inhibitors are highly effective at reducing different pain states, including neuropathic pain and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.

He also found a new role for the enzyme in dendritic cells, which are a specialized type of immune cell that controls inflammation and can activate the body's ability to fight infections by stimulating T cells and creating an immune response.

"We found that by blocking DAGLb, we can stop inflammation without affecting immunity," Hsu said. "This supports the idea that DAGLb is a viable target for long-term blockade of inflammation and pain without potentially compromising our immune system."

His research program is focused on using chemistry to find new ways to modulate the immune system.

The findings have been published in the online edition of the journal Cell Chemical Biology.