Researchers from the University College of London (UCL) said that after roughly ten years of intense research they have “discovered the recipe for painlessness,” according to the college’s press release.
How’d they find the recipe? They pretty much worked backwards on the problem by studying a person (and genetically modified mice) who cannot feel pain at all.
People who have Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA) cannot feel pain principally because they are born without a sodium channel called Nav1.7. Nav1.7 is instrumental in carrying pain signals to the nervous system.
The researchers also found that people without Nav1.7 sodium channels have higher than normal levels of natural opioid peptides.
In short, people with CIPA lack an important channel to carry pain signals, have increased natural opioids, and the result is they are unable to experience pain.
Researchers then created genetically modified mice that also lack the Nav1.7 sodium channel for precise physiological experiments of the nervous system.
They gave a 39-year-old woman who was born without the Nav1.7 sodium channel naloxone – an opioid blocker – and she felt pain for the first time. They gave naloxone to the modified mice and found they could perceive pain, too.
“After a decade of rather disappointing drug trials, we now have confirmation that Nav1.7 really is a key element in human pain,” said John Wood, a professor at University College London, in the press release.
“The secret ingredient turned out to be good old-fashioned opioid peptides, and we have now filed a patent for combining low dose opioids with Nav1.7 blockers. This should replicate the painlessness experienced by people with rare mutations, and we have already successfully tested this approach in unmodified mice,” he added.
The combination, they believe, is a recipe for the future of pain management – one they see will a) eliminate the problems associated with high-dose opioids, b) eliminate the numbness broad-based sodium channel blockers cause, while eliminating unwanted pain.
“We hope to see our approach tested in human trials by 2017 and we can then start looking into drug combinations to help the millions of chronic pain patients around the world,” Wood stated.
The study is published in Nature Communications.