Inhibiting the breakdown of endogenous opioids and cannabinoids to alleviate pain

Chronic pain remains unsatisfactorily treated, and few novel painkillers have reached the market in the past century. Increasing the levels of the main endogenous opioid peptides — enkephalins — by inhibiting their two inactivating ectopeptidases, neprilysin and aminopeptidase N, has analgesic effects in various models of inflammatory and neuropathic pain. Stemming from the same pharmacological concept, fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) inhibitors have also been found to have analgesic effects in pain models by preventing the breakdown of endogenous cannabinoids.

Dual enkephalinase inhibitors and FAAH inhibitors are now in early-stage clinical trials. In this Review, we compare the effects of these two potential classes of novel analgesics and describe the progress in their rational design. We also consider the challenges in their clinical development and opportunities for combination therapies.

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