By Manas Mishra

(Reuters) – An experimental osteoarthritis drug developed by Pfizer Inc and Eli Lilly and Co achieved its main goal of lowering pain in a late stage trial, the companies said on Wednesday, potentially offering a safer alternative to opioids.

Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and drugmakers have been looking for less addictive and safer options for people wanting to reduce pain.

The treatment, tanezumab, belongs to an investigational category of pain medications that target nerve growth factor, a protein involved in the growth of nerve cells, and is also being evaluated to treat chronic lower back and cancer pain.

U.S. regulators in 2015 lifted a hold on trials of medicines targeting the protein due to concerns they could worsen osteoarthritis in a small percentage of patients.

Pfizer’s shares were marginally up at $37.79 in premarket trade. Eli Lilly shares rose 1 percent to $90.50.

The study showed that patients who received two doses of the drug, tanezumab, showed a statistically significant improvement in physical function and an assessment of osteoarthritis by the patients, when compared to placebo, meeting all three goals of the study.

Preliminary safety data showed that the drug was generally well-tolerated in these patients, with only about 1 percent of patients discontinuing treatment due to adverse effects.

“Safety concerns have been an overhang on the tanezumab opportunity. The data today should alleviate some of those concerns, in our opinion,” Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louis Chen said.

Pfizer and Lilly, in a $1.8 billion deal, agreed in 2013 to jointly develop and sell tanezumab for several pain-related conditions, with the companies equally sharing development expenses and future sales.

The drug’s sales are expected to reach $283 million for Pfizer by 2020, according to Thomson Reuters’ data.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting about 20 million people in the United States alone.

Due to the lack of effective alternatives, patients with painful conditions like osteoarthritis and cancer turn to opioids for managing their symptoms. On average, 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Bernard Orr)