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Beyond the Opioid Epidemic: Scientist Seeks to Develop non-Addictive Treatment for Pain

Beyond the Opioid Epidemic: Scientist Seeks to Develop non-Addictive Treatment for Pain 

A Rutgers neuroscientist is working to develop a non-opioid pain medication that—if successful—could provide relief to patients without the risk of addiction.

David Barker, a professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences, studies the pathways in the brain involved with psychiatric disorders with the goal of finding effective treatments.

His work has recently focused on a receptor—a key protein for communication in the brain—that shows promise in promoting pain relief without triggering the addictive response associated with opioid receptors. Addiction to opioid prescription painkillers has fueled a public health crisis over decades that has destroyed lives and devastated communities.

Barker cautioned that his work is in its early stages, and that more hurdles need to be cleared, including finding a drug compound that targets and binds to the receptor so that it sends out its chemical message to other cells in the body.  

ID23 Psychology sqThe Barker team studies the lateral habenula, an area of the brain which plays a role in depression, pain, and substance use disorders.“There is a lot of serendipity here, and a lot of hope,” Barker said. “It is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack. But on the small chance we succeed, it would be a vitally important discovery.”

Indeed, the promise inherent in the research has drawn attention and support from SAS and other Rutgers units.

This spring Barker received the 2023 Grossman Innovation Prize from SAS, which provides up to $50,000 to faculty members developing research with commercial potential. The award, which is made possible through a gift from Rutgers alumnus Alan Grossman, allows researchers to advance their work to the proof-of-concept stage when they would be eligible for venture capital funding and/or spin-off as an independent business.

The award was recently announced by James Masschaele, SAS Executive Vice Dean.

“We’re grateful to Alan Grossman for his generous support and pleased to award the prize to David Barker for research that could help countless people overcome debilitating pain without the risk of addiction,” Masschaele said in a statement.

Other Rutgers scholars are making key contributions to the work, including Jacques Roberge, director of the Molecular Design and Synthesis group at Rutgers Research, who brings years of experience in drug discovery, and Zhiping Pang, professor of cell biology and neuroscience at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

In addition, Barker has received grants from the New Jersey Health Foundation and the Rutgers Addiction Research Center.

“We’re excited to have so much support behind this important endeavor,” Barker said.

The opioid epidemic emerged in the 1990s with a surge in prescriptions for medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the epidemic a public health crisis. In 2019, more than 10 million people abused prescription opioids and 1.6 million of them misused for the first time. In the same year, over 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, the HHS said.

Barker, who received his PhD at Rutgers, completed his post-doc at the National Institute on Drug Abuse where his team occasionally met with the director and other top agency officials to discuss approaches to the opioid crisis.

“This became a priority,” Barker said. “The gravity of the problem is such that it took someone like me, who is not ordinarily focused on drug development, and drove me to put together a team and do whatever I can to solve the problem.”

Based on research he did in collaboration with Elyssa Margolis, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Barker is focusing on a region of the brain known as the lateral habenula, which plays a role in depression, pain, and substance use disorders.

In short, he has identified an “orphan” receptor that shows strong potential for doing the pain relief work opioid receptors do, but without supporting the reinforcing or rewarding response that leads to addiction.

The work ahead will involve acquiring and testing of compounds with the potential to bind to the receptor—much like a key into a lock—while avoiding “crosstalk” with opioid receptors, Barker said.

“You could think of it as a targeted opioid replacement therapy,” Barker said. “We are actually trying to replace what one receptor is doing with another one that would have a much more specific effect.”


Alan Grossman, who has supported the Grossman Innovation Prize through a generous gift, received his bachelor’s degree in computer science with honors from Livingston College, Rutgers University, and went on to complete a master’s degree in computer science from Stevens Institute of Technology. He had a distinguished 25-year career in the telecommunications industry. He also helped create and fund the Alan H. Grossman Annual Scholarship, which since 2011 has provided financial assistance to nearly 20 Rutgers students.