University of Calgary researchers believe a medication already being used to treat gout could be a weapon in the fight against opioid dependency — by alleviating withdrawal symptoms.

"It's quite effective [on rodents]," neuroscientist Tuan Trang told The Homestretch about the drug probenecid.

Opioids, such as morphine and fentanyl, are potent painkillers, but can cause severe and debilitating withdrawal symptoms.

"So ... that often compels individuals to continue using opioids, so that they avoid having to go through this," said Trang.

Police have warned of a growing opioid crisis in Alberta, with 338 deaths from opioid-related overdoses reported in the first 10 months of 2016.

Trang led a team of researchers from the U of C's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Hotchkiss Brain Institute who administered the drug to opioid-dependent rats and mice.

"We were able to substantially reduce the withdrawal."

Trang's team identified a target on the immune cells responsible for producing withdrawal symptoms in the rodents.

"We realized there is ... a drug that was already clinically approved to treat gout that effectively blocks the target on these cells."

Trang says that drug, probenecid, is inexpensive and has relatively few side effects.

Clinical trials next

Now the researchers want to know if the medication will work in people seeking to decrease or stop their use of opioids.

They're working with the Calgary Pain Clinic to design a clinical trial involving patients who've already been prescribed the painkillers.

The team's research was published today in the journal Nature Medicine.

With files from The Homestretch