Friday, November 8, 2013

A gentle answer: David Kroll and Kristen Johnston, talking opiate research

Most of you probably know that I spend a healthy amount of time on Twitter; you can usually find out exactly what I'm up to by clicking the link to my profile page to the left. (Relax, this isn't some sort of Twitter evangelism post.) This last Sunday, I was a little startled to see David Kroll (of Terra Sigillata fame, and former pharmacology professor) engaging with actress Kristen Johnston, talking about pharmaceutical companies and opiate addiction:
Kristen Johnston: I wonder why no drug co has made safe, non-addictive painkiller as successful as treating pain as Opiates are? 
HollywoodDebi:  if it's not addictive, how will they line their pockets? 
David Kroll: Reason no drug co has made a non-addictive painkiller as effective as opiates is because the science is hugely challenging 
Kristen Johnston: I honestly doubt that.
It was at this point that, watching this, I turned to my wife, pointed out the exchange and said, "Who are people going to believe? The pharmacologist or the actress?"* But David, to his credit, began to really engage her, talking about her addiction to pain pills that she is in recovery from**:
David Kroll: Kristen, no scientist wants people to go through the struggles you've experienced. The field is working very hard on this. 
Per-Ola Norrby: I know that AstraZeneca poured billions into pain, unsuccessfully, now stopped trying. 
Kristen Johnston: OK, I believe you. Do you mean too diff to actually create the drug, or too diff to fight big pharma? 
David Kroll: if a company found a non-addictive painkiller as effective as strong opiates, they'd have a blockbuster 
David Kroll: I'd say too difficult to find something as effective without being an opiate and having addiction potential. 
David Kroll: So it's not a fight against big pharma. It's a problem that needs both govt funding and big pharma investment
Kristen Johnston: I see. Thank you for clarifying. I appreciate it.
Click here for the whole exchange, of which I've excerpted a small part.

I think David gave me a really important lesson in the power of empathy, in terms of persuading people about the difficulties of science and engaging people who simply do not have the same background that you do. These are all things that I know, but it's much easier to throw up one's hands and think that arguing with people about the benign intentions of the pharmaceutical industry is futile. Sometimes, it's not.

*It was also at that point that I felt the beginnings of getting really offended; nothing quite like one's motives impugned to get the blood running hot. 
** Something that I wasn't aware of, actually. 


  1. True, but I think you will agree that, to her credit, Kristen Johnston was also receptive. That's not always the case. David was of course great as usual.

    Also, maybe the answer to a non-addictive opiate is that recent centipede venom peptide highlighted by luysii...

  2. What ever happened to the work off of John Daly's Epibatidine discovery? Anyone? Bueller?

    John, you are missed. How many of you would have been willing to go through these jungles licking frogs to determine which ones to test? Seriously, his tongue was his instrument. Yep! We've got an alkaloid here please keep track of it until I come down or survive this cardiac event. Dr. Daly, I'm glad for the time I got to spend with you and the many conversations we had in the early aughts.

  3. Wasn't there something similar recently with @laelaps and Jose Canseco? Something about gravity and dinosaurs? When most people were pointing and laughing, laelaps explained the science behind dinosaur anatomy with some physicists chiming in on gravity.

    1. 1) Yeah, I think so.
      2) I think it's much easier to work with a goofy fact, as opposed to "these people are out to poison you and steal your money."

  4. I think we have come a long ways in making effective pain killers which are non-opiate/opioid. Unfortunately I think he is right and the science is very hard. For one thing, pain and pleasure are very linked, so finding a drug that really eliminates pain (and not just tames it) tends to mean that it will also get rid of our 'emotional' pain and will cause euphoria (if I can speak rather non-scientifically, despite having a pharmacology degree).

    I am more interested in discovering better treatments for opiate addiction besides methadone/buprenorphine. For example, read about ibogaine and its analogs. I think the answer to this question may have more to do with the profit motive (although buprenorphine / Suboxone has made good money for its manufacturer).

    Keep up the good (blogging) work CJ.

  5. Pain is one of the Holy Grails of pharma research. The term 'blockbuster' doesn't really explain what you'd have if you were to discover a pain medicine that didn't have the properties associated with opiates. It would be like printing money, which is why so many big companies were involved in Pain research.

    That said, it's also an enormous minefield, one that a large number of big pharma companies have walked away from after years and many, many millions of dollars spent. The number of big players in Pain is getting very small at this point.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20