Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription Drug Addiction. Prescription Medication.
Prescription Drug Addiction. Prescription Medication.

Prescription medication is used every day to combat everything from sinus infections to chronic pain. In most cases, it is a blessing, allowing patients to defeat biological threats, or deal with the ramifications from injuries. However, in an increasing number of instances, prescription medication, specifically painkillers, are becoming a problem in their own right. These medications are addictive, and can be as dangerous as illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even more so.

The Epidemic

We live in the midst of a raging epidemic to which many are blind. That is, we live amidst a storm of prescription medication misuse and abuse. Most of these are opioids originally prescribed to treat pain. However, central nervous system depressants and stimulants are also being abused.

For many people, the prescription they are given from their doctor is a gateway leading from those medicines to illicit drugs like heroin or morphine. According to the National Safety Council,

"Many adults are prescribed opioids by doctors and subsequently become addicted or move from pills to heroin. 70% of people who have abused prescription painkillers reported getting them from friends or relatives. Most people don’t even know that sharing opioids is a felony."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 115 people die in the US every single day as the result of an opioid overdose, which includes not only heroin and synthetic opioids, but also prescription pain relievers. The NIDA also goes on to report that up to 29% of patients who are prescribed opioid medication ultimately misuse those medicines. Up to 12% will become addicted. Up to 6% become heroin users, and roughly 80% of all heroin users began with prescription medications.

Why Are So Many Addicted?

It is difficult to understand exactly why so many people are addicted to opioids today, both in prescription form and in illicit form. Part of the reason is that opioids have a high chance of causing addiction on their own, even if there is no misuse and the medications are taken as directed by the patient’s doctor. This then leads to addictive behavior, including misuse of the medications. However, addiction itself is not very well understood by modern science. That is changing as new techniques to study the effect of drugs and alcohol on the cells of the brain become available.

How Might Stem Cell Therapy Help?

Stem cells have been studied for decades at this point, although the science is still relatively new and there are no FDA-approved treatments available at the time of this writing. However, these unique cells offer a great deal of promise for helping to beat addictions of all types, including opioid addiction.

What Are Stem Cells?

First, we need to define what stem cells are. Also called mesenchymal stem cells, these are essentially the building blocks of the human body. They’re chimeras in a way, able to transform from one type of cell into another that is needed. And, while there are specialized stem cells in all areas of the body (liver, skin, lungs, etc.), there are also precursor stem cells, called pluripotent stem cells. These are immature cells that have not yet specialized. As such, they can transform into any type of tissue, from blood vessels to red blood cells to brain neurons and everything in between. However, pluripotent stem cells are only readily available from certain sources, such as umbilical cord blood and tissue.

Studying Neurons

Currently, scientists are using stem cells to treat addiction in a number of different ways. One of those is growing induced pluripotent stem cells from skin cells in a lab, and then transforming them over time into pseudo-neurons to study how drugs and alcohol affect brain cells. Another is the use of mesenchymal stem cells transplanted into a patient to reduce opioid tolerance and hyperalgesia. Another clinical trial sought to use induced pluripotent stem cells to create patient-specific addiction treatments. An ongoing clinical trial with the National Institute of Health aims to use mesenchymal stem cells to treat cocaine addiction.

Autologous Stem Cells and Allogeneic Stem Cells

Most of the studies and trials mentioned above use what are called autologous stem cells. That is, these cells are harvested from a patient’s own body. They are then reinjected into the patient (often through an IV, but sometimes intracranially). While this is a common approach, it is problematic in many ways.

For instance, a patient’s stem cells are as old as the patient’s body. These aged cells have lost much of their original energy, and have also accumulated mutations over time. These mutations can cause an immune reaction when injected back into the body. Even if they do not cause such a reaction, the limited divisibility of aged stem cells means limited utility in terms of healing.

A better option is to use allogeneic stem cells. These are harvested from umbilical cord blood and tissue, and are very young, which means that they are both highly energetic, and highly divisible. Because they are so young, there is only minimal danger of mutations, and they are in fact invisible to the immune system. Perhaps even more important is the fact that umbilical cord blood and tissue are rich sources of pluripotent stem cells – immature stem cells that have yet to specialize and can transform into other types of cells more easily.

In the End

Ultimately, stem cell therapy may provide a way to reduce an opioid addict’s resistance to drugs, and thereby combat addiction. There is also evidence that stem cell therapy can be used to rewire the brain’s reward and pleasure centers to no longer crave the experience of taking the drugs in the first place. Again, there is currently no FDA-approved stem cell treatment in the US for humans, although a significant amount of research is ongoing. Any treatment based on stem cell therapy should be considered experimental.


Opioid addiction
How opioid addiction occurs
Opioid Overdose Crisis
The prescription drug epidemic in the United States: a perfect storm
Misuse of Prescription Drugs
Painkillers Driving Addiction, Overdose
Significant blocking of opioid tolerance with mesenchymal stem cell transplant
Stem Cell Study of Genetics and Drug Addiction
Nanoparticle-Mesenchymal Stem Cell conjugates for cell therapy in drug addiction
Using Stem Cells to Study Alcohol Addiction

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