The Science Behind a Painless Existence

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Pain level meter via Shutterstock Pain level meter via Shutterstock

Researchers have discovered the science behind a painless existence.

A report in the journal Nature Communications about a study from the University College London explores the genetics behind persons with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP). The disorder, of which only 20 known cases exist in the world, results in an inability to perceive physical pain. Essentially these individuals may experience trauma of any degree, yet are unable to recognize the pain produced as a result.

Previous research established a genetic cause for CIP in 2006, isolating a mutation in the SCN9A gene as the issue. This particular gene, when functional, provides instructions for making the sodium channel NaV1.7. Sodium channels are a major component of nerve cells, playing a role in the transmission of pain signals.

The study comes at a time when chronic pain syndromes, overprescribing and drug overdoses appear to be driving factors behind research geared towards development of more effective pain control with less addictive/adverse effects. However, with some new insight to the mechanisms underlying pain sensation, researchers may have just set the course for re-defining pain management in the future.

The UCL researchers found that the genetically-modified mice, as well as persons who lacked the NaV1.7 sodium channel, also endogenously produced higher than normal levels of natural opioid peptides. In their experiment, naloxone (an opioid antagonist) was administered to GM mice lacking the NaV1.7, and to a 39-year old CIP patient known to have the mutation. Subsequently both the mice and the woman were able to feel pain. The experiment proved that the naturally-occurring opioid peptides they discovered were key to producing painlessness.

Not wasting any time, the UCL authors of the study have already filed a patent for combining low-dose opioids with Nav1.7 blockers.

"This (the combination drug) should replicate the painlessness experienced by people with rare mutations," said ULC Medicine Professor John Wood, in a statement on the college's website, "and we have already successfully tested this approach in unmodified mice.

Additionally, Professor Wood anticipates that the opioid dosage needed to prevent pain when used in combination with Nav1.7 blockers will be low. The researchers are aiming for human trials by 2017.