Opioids are the most effective drugs for the treatment of severe pain, but they also cause addiction and overdose deaths, which have led to a worldwide opioid crisis. Therefore, the development of safer opioids is urgently needed. In this article, we provide a critical overview of emerging opioid-based strategies aimed at effective pain relief and improved side effect profiles. These approaches comprise biased agonism, the targeting of (i) opioid receptors in peripheral inflamed tissue (by reducing agonist access to the brain, the use of nanocarriers, or low pH-sensitive agonists); (ii) heteromers or multiple receptors (by monovalent, bivalent, and multifunctional ligands); (iii) receptor splice variants; and (iv) endogenous opioid peptides (by preventing their degradation or enhancing their production by gene transfer). Substantial advancements are underscored by pharmaceutical development of new opioids such as peripheral κ-receptor agonists, and by treatments augmenting the action of endogenous opioids, which have entered clinical trials. Additionally, there are several promising novel opioids comprehensively examined in preclinical studies, but also strategies such as biased agonism, which might require careful rethinking.
Keywords: addiction; biased agonists; endogenous opioid peptides; heteromers; opioid receptor signaling; opioid side effects; pain; peripheral opioid analgesia.