TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Researchers at the University of Florida say they’ve found a way to change fentanyl and make it safer. Right now, it’s one of the most deadly drugs in the United States, with confirmed overdose deaths in the tens of thousands.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. While it was made to help treat cancer patients through a skin patch, a pill version has become a common, illicitly produced, version sold illegally for recreational use.

To work on a way to make the drug safer, scientists at UF experimented with fentanyl’s chemical makeup, modifying it to keep the pain-relief effect while reducing the drug’s harmful side effects, according to a release from the university.

The research was conducted by members of UF Health, the university’s academic health center. Along with researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Southern California and Stanford University, UF published a study in Nature with the results of their experimentation.

“Fentanyl is one of the world’s most powerful, yet dangerous pain-relieving medications,” study co-author Jay McLaughlin, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy, said. “A team of multidisciplinary scientists from some of the nation’s leading universities came together to gain a new understanding of how the opioid receptor works, and from that research, we sought to generate a new medication that will be a safer pain reliever.”

Following a string of overdose deaths, and their increase in frequency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Health Alert Network Advisory in December 2020. In the years since, the increase of fatal overdoses has increased, according to data from the CDC. As of July 2022, overdoses accounted for half of all deaths in the United States.

According to the university, drugs like fentanyl and morphine, used for pain relief, bind to certain receptors in a patient’s nerve cells. However, the interaction with what’s called the mu-opioid receptor, can also trigger serious side effects, such as respiratory distress, sedation, addiction, and death. The DEA says fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat in the country.

Through the modification research, scientists at UF and other universities worked together to make a new receptor structure, allowing the drug to relieve the pain while reducing harmful side effects.

“The newly designed fentanyl medication is engineered to work as a partial agonist, which are drugs that bind to and activate a receptor but only have partial efficacy,” McLaughlin said. “When the drug binds to the mu-opioid receptor site, the interaction triggers pain relief, but the engagement with the sodium ion essentially turns the receptor off before the adverse effects can occur.”