Pain medication can be highly addictive but the other choices are to suffer through the pain, or use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that may increase risk for cardiovascular disease or internal bleeding. After five years of research, medical researchers from Stanford University have discovered a nonaddictive and safe painkiller compound for inflammation, and published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Researchers discovered the powers of the new compound Alda-1 (aldehyde dehydrogenase) unintentionally while they were trying to figure out why moderate alcohol drinkers have heart attacks that are less severe than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers. They found alcohol increased an enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol that forms free radicals and can damage cells. When the enzyme increased, it also broke down the toxic aldehydes that formed from the stress of a heart attack.

Inflammation causes the same toxic aldehyde accumulation that occurs when a person has a heart attack, which is why they stumbled upon a non-addictive compound to answer a person with pain’s problems. When they put it to the test in mice and rats, they first gave them the enzyme to create inflammatory pain, which made them lick and flick their inflamed paws in pain but once they received Alda-1, they felt less pain.

"Finding a new pain medication is important because we need a safer drug; there are 17,000 deaths from prescription opiate overdoses a year alone," the study’s lead author Daria Mochly-Rosen, professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a press release. "I'm not a pain expert, and pain was never a research focus of my lab. We focused our research on this enzyme for a completely different reason, and because we are in academia, we could follow a serendipitous finding and develop a new research interest. Hopefully, this finding will translate into helping people who have inflammatory pain."

Inflammation occurs when the body’s white blood cells and chemicals try to protect against an infection such as a bacteria or virus, but in some disease, such as arthritis, the body can overreact. The normal protective immune system begins to cause damage to its own tissues even if there isn’t an infection or abnormality. Symptoms of inflammatory pain include joint pain, stiffness, loss of joint function, redness, and can be mistaken for flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, fatigue or loss of energy, and headaches.

Source: Mochly-Rosen D, Cury Y, Gutierrez VP, Chen CH, Gross ER, and Zambelli VO. Aldehyde dehydrogenase-2 regulates nociception in rodent models of acute inflammatory pain. Science Translational Medicine. 2014.