Austin researchers develop alternative treatment to painkillers

Army Sgt. Omar Avila says the pain-relieving cream has worked for him. (KXAN Photo)
Army Sgt. Omar Avila says the pain-relieving cream has worked for him. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin researchers at Clarity Science are on a mission to treat pain differently. With thousands of people addicted and losing their lives to opioids, they say patients need alternative options.

“There are enough opioid prescriptions out in this country for everybody to have a bottle, and really probably everybody knows someone that has a problem,” said Dr. Dennis Harris, chief medical officer of Clarity Science.

Dr. Harris and his team have been developing topical creams that treat pain directly. They’re using FDA-approved medications to create different formulas to treat different types of pain.

“There are multiple medicines in the cream, each individual medicine is an FDA-approved item,” said Dr. Harris. “The combination of those medications is what makes the difference.”

In a clinical study called OPERA, researchers found a 45 percent reduction in opioid usage among participants. That number was higher for other painkillers: a 71 percent decrease in prescribed anti-inflammatory painkillers, and a 51 percent reduction in the use of over-the-counter painkillers.

As far as side effects, only a handful of participants experienced any. Of those that did, they had a rash in the treatment area, that went away after they stopped using the medicine.

The research company says the formulas they’ve uncovered are something your own doctor and pharmacist could create for you, but right now, insurance likely won’t cover it. That’s a problem they’re working to tackle.

Researchers at Clarity Science have developed a topical cream to help treat chronic pain. (KXAN Photo)
Researchers at Clarity Science have developed a topical cream to help treat chronic pain. (KXAN Photo)

The acting CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina is on the Clarity Science board. He’s requested they form a task force to figure out a way to introduce this as a routine portion of the accepted treatment of chronic pain conditions.

“We need more education of the physician. The physician can easily accept these if he knows about them, and since they’re all FDA-approved medications, he can get those assembled,” said Dr. Harris. “We plan to continue the quest, because it’s working, and it’s working well.”

Dr. Harris says in his 30-plus years practicing medicine, this is some of the most important work he’s been a part of. It’s been recognized by the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Back in February, President Obama proposed $1 billion to address the prescription opioid abuse and heroin epidemic.

Some of the patients trying the cream now swear by it, like Army Sgt. Omar Avila. “I was just putting up with the pain, so I was constantly grinding my teeth because I didn’t want to be addicted to a painkiller.”

During his deployment to Iraq in 2007, Avila’s vehicle was hit by a 200 pound IED. The bomb took his toes off and burned 75 percent of his body. Just two weeks ago his lower leg was amputated, but even that can’t keep him away from his passion of powerlifting.

“When you come out here, we don’t care, and the weights don’t care — what color, what height, how skinny, how fat you are, because at the end of the day the iron doesn’t lie.”

Avila was skeptical of using the cream for his pain, but gave it a try. “I grabbed it, put it on, stretched out and went to the gym worked out came home. And I didn’t notice I wasn’t in pain the whole time. I‘m so used to putting it in the back of my head and being used to it, and I said wait I didn’t take painkillers today, does this stuff really work?”

He says he doesn’t leave the house without it now.

The company says they would be happy for a major drug company to come in and make the creams a readily available single drug, but that it will require a lot more funding. But they say they’ll continue the effort, because thousands of Americans rely on it.

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