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Scientists have discovered a powerful pain reliever that is effective in alleviating neuropathic pain, a discovery that could be instrumental in addressing the opioid abuse epidemic, one of the biggest public health challenges today.

In the study, the synthetic compound — known as UKH-1114 — was found effective in relieving neuropathic pain in injured mice. It was as effective as a drug widely used for pain relief called gabapentin.

The new pain drug binds to a receptor on cells throughout the central nervous system called the sigma 2 receptor.

Administering UKH-1114 on mice with nerve damage showed reduction in pain, but at a much lower dose than gabapentin (one-sixth as much) and was effective much longer (lasting for a couple of days, compared with four to six hours).

“This opens the door to having a new treatment for neuropathic pain that is not an opioid,” said Stephen Martin, Professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

“And that has huge implications,” Martin added, in the paper published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience.

If the drug is proved to be safe, effective and non-addictive in humans, the discovery could be instrumental in addressing the opioid abuse epidemic, the researchers said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly two million people in the US suffer from addiction to prescription opioid pain relievers.

Opioids also often require increased dosing to maintain efficacy.

Alternatives to opioids have their own drawbacks — for example, gabapentin (sold as Neurontin) can cause cognitive impairment in certain individuals, the researchers said.

Neuropathic pain, or chronic pain, is caused when nerves in the central nervous system are damaged. Among other things, it can result from chemotherapy, diabetes and injuries to the brain or spinal cord.