CBD-based compounds could reverse opioid overdoses

April 4, 2023

There’s been a recent push in the U.S. to make naloxone — a fast-acting opioid antidote — available without a prescription. This medication has saved lives, but it’s less effective against powerful synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. In an interesting twist, researchers are now looking to cannabidiol (CBD), a component of marijuana, as a possible alternative to the popular antidote. Recently, a team reported that compounds based on CBD reduce fentanyl binding and boost the effects of naloxone.

The researchers presented their results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS Spring 2023 is a hybrid meeting that was held virtually and in-person March 26–30, and featured more than 10,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics. 

“Fentanyl-class compounds account for more than 80% of opioid overdose deaths, and these compounds aren’t going anywhere — it’s just too much of an economic temptation for dealers,” said Alex Straiker, Ph.D., the project’s co-principal investigator. “Given that naloxone is the only drug available to reverse overdoses, I think it makes sense to look at alternatives.” 

A new option could take one of two forms, according to Michael VanNieuwenhze, Ph.D., the other co-principal investigator for the project. 

“Ideally, we would like to discover a more potent replacement for naloxone,” VanNieuwenhze said. “However, finding something that works synergistically with it, reducing the amount needed to treat an overdose, would also be a success.” 

Opioids are a class of compounds that are prescribed to treat pain and are sometimes sold illegally. If taken in excess, the drugs can interfere with breathing, making them potentially lethal. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than half a million people died from overdoses involving opioids between 1999 and 2020. That toll continues to climb. 

Compared to other compounds in this class, such as heroin or morphine, fentanyl and its other synthetic relatives bind more tightly to opioid receptors in the brain. Naloxone reverses an overdose by competing with the drug molecules for the same binding sites on the receptors. But because fentanyl binds so readily, it has a leg up on naloxone, and growing evidence suggests that reversing these kinds of overdoses may require multiple doses of the antidote. 

ACS release