JULY 25, 2023
The opioid crisis in America is a serious problem, killing tens of thousands of people every year. One of the most critical tools on the front lines of naloxone, a drug that can help revive people suffering from overdose. According to new research, cannabidiol (CBD) may actually help as well.
Naloxone has a high success rate of reviving people who overdose on drugs like heroin. But in cases involving fentanyl, a prescription opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, it sometimes comes up short. With fentanyl addiction continuing to spread, scientists at Indiana University set out to find a way to help save more lives.
The researchers had theorized CBD may bolster the effects of naloxone, presenting their preliminary findings earlier this year. Fortunately, the final results of the study are even more encouraging.
The study, published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, examined 50 different chemical compounds—including CBD. The goal was to find something else for opioid receptors in the brain to bind to instead of the opioid itself.
“The synthetic opiates bind very tightly to the opioid receptors,” said Alex Straiker, senior research scientist for the Gill Center for Biomolecular Science, in a press release.
“Naloxone must compete with opioids for the same binding site in the central nervous system to cancel out an overdose,” he explained. “But during a fentanyl overdose, naloxone and fentanyl bind to different sites, meaning there is no competition.”
What did the study reveal?
The researchers were focused on finding negative allosteric modulators. These are types of molecules that can change the behavior of different molecules around them.
By testing the effect of opioid receptors on the 50 different compounds (including CBD), the team hoped to determine if any could act as negative allosteric modulators. This would indicate promise as an antidote for overdose.
Initial tests showed that CBD may be effective, but large doses were needed. Researchers then altered the chemical structure of the CBD slightly, resulting in a compound that successfully reversed the effects of fentanyl.
“We’ve identified structural parts that are important for the desired antidote effect,” Straiker said. “Some of these compounds are much more potent than the lead. We’ve worked with a third lab to model the binding site that may help identify additional compounds moving forward.”
While the initial results of the study are promising, more research is needed to confirm the findings. The Indiana University team hopes to conduct further trials, specifically to learn if CBD could help treat respiratory depression during overdose.
If successful, the world may have a new tool to combat the opioid crisis. With so many people suffering from opioid addiction, the news is a small but exciting step in the right direction.