Researchers say they're on verge of nonaddictive painkiller

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CBS) "Not many people know they're addicts until they start using," Mark Loccisano said.

Loccisano felt a gratification from painkillers with his very first pill. It was prescribed for him by a doctor for a sports injury. It was the beginning of an opioid addiction that consumed Loccisano's 20s and nearly cost him his life.

"I ended up wrapping my work truck around a telephone pole one night, on the way home from work," Loccisano said. "That wasn't even enough for me to stay clean."

He's now in treatment at St. Christopher's Inn, run by a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison, New York. Loccisano is part of a staggering number of Americans swept up in the nation's opioid epidemic.

But now, three Harvard-trained scientists believe they've developed a breakthrough: a nonnarcotic painkiller 50 times more powerful than morphine but it is not addictive.

Reporter: We were told the same thing about the painkillers currently on the market, that they were nonaddictive, that there's no risk for dependency. And look at where we are now.
Ajay Yekkirala/Blue Therapeutics: The onus is really on all of us to make sure that the scientific rigor is maintained.

The team at Blue Therapeutics believes the answer lies in their molecule, blue-181. It works by clinging to a different receptor in the central nervous system that opioids, eliminating the narcotic high, abuse and dependence risks.

"It targets receptors in the spinal cord where you are able to reduce the perception of pain, without targeting the areas of the brain which leads to addiction side effects," Yekkirala said.

"It takes a long time to really know all the long-term effects and really prove that something has no risk of addiction over time," said Dr. Robert Griffin, who specializes in pain management.

Reporter: Do you see this, your concept, as part of the solution to the combating opioid epidemic?
Ajay Yekkirala: Absolutely. I think the opioid epidemic, one of the main drivers of it, is that a lot of us are in pain. And if we don't give effective painkillers, we never going to solve the problem.

Blue Therapeutics says it could be five years or so before the drug makes it through clinical trials to see if they confirm its claims.

Several other biotech companies and researchers are working to develop similar drugs with different approaches. Blue Therapeutics is preparing for its first clinical trial, but the compound hasn't been tested in humans yet.