Pharmacy research could revolutionize treatment for opioid overdoses

three students in white lab coat

(L-R) Md Tariqul Haque Tuhin ’22, Hala Aldawod ’23 and Dengpan Liang ’22 

A University of the Pacific pharmacy professor is receiving a prestigious $1.7 million federal grant to discover a better antidote for opioid overdoses. 

Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy Professor Mamoun M. Alhamadsheh is only the third Pacific professor in more than 20 years to receive an R01—the highest level of competitive research grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“This is the highest achievement in biomedical research at Pacific that all scientists dream about,” said Professor William K. Chan, chair of the Department of Pharmaceutics and Medicinal Chemistry.

With a team of graduate students, Alhamadsheh is working to discover a more potent and longer lasting antidote for opioid overdoses. The research is urgently needed. Illicit synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, account for about two thirds of drug overdose deaths in the United States.

“Current antidotes are not very effective with synthetic opioids because the opioids stay in the body much longer than the antidotes, which causes people to relapse and stop breathing again,” Alhamadsheh said. “That’s why many patients may require multiple doses of the antidote after the initial rescue.”

six students and a professor pose for a photo

(L-R) Md Tariqul Haque Tuhin ’22, Rasha Emara ’24, Dengpan Liang ’22, Mamoun Alhamadsheh, Arjun Patel ’24, Avishan Kiani ’25 and Hala Aldawod ’23

The team, including graduate students Hala Aldawod ’23, Joshua Ho ’24, Arjun Patel ’24 and Rasha Emara ’24 and recent graduates Dengpan Liang ’22 and Md Tariqul Haque Tuhin ’22, is working to extend the duration of antidotes in the body for 24 hours or more using antidotes already approved by the Food and Drug Administration—naloxone, known as Narcan, and nalmefene.

Aldawod provided the majority of the preliminary data using a novel drug delivery approach previously discovered by Alhamadsheh. Aldawod optimized the technology for countering overdoses by designing a new molecule that stays in the body and releases the antidote slowly rather than all at once.

“The significance of this finding is tremendous. This is the first time someone has increased the half-life of naloxone, while maintaining its full efficacy. The beauty of our approach is that we are empowering drugs that are already approved by the FDA,” Alhamadsheh said.

Aldawod was drawn to the research after learning of the dramatic increase in overdose deaths among high school students in the United States, which has more than doubled since 2019.

“Many of these kids were taking pills that they thought were Xanax, not knowing it was laced with fentanyl. I want to do something to protect these kids from overdoses,” Aldawod said.

The team is currently optimizing the technology to eventually allow for moving the lead antidotes to clinical trials.

“Our findings have the potential to lead to an opioid antidote that goes to the market and helps people, so that’s the dream,” Aldawod said.

The team’s findings are expected to be published later this year.