Feel no pain? Congenital analgesia research paves the way to new pain medicine

A girl who does not feel pain may hold the key to new developments in painkiller medicine.

Researchers who have studied the girl, who has congenital analgesia (a disorder which means that she is unable to feel physical pain) have discovered a gene mutation in her DNA which they believe disrupts and often blocks the perception of pain. Using their findings, they hope to go on to develop new types of pain medication, which would work in much the same way by blocking the neural impulses which transmit pain.

The gene in question, identified by a team of researchers (led by Ingo Kurth) at the Jena University Hospital in Germany, is named SCN11A, and is responsible for controlling the way in which pain-detecting neurons develop. Kurth and her team were able to identify and locate the gene by comparing the young girl’s DNA sequence against those of her parents. Upon further investigation, the team found that in typically developed people, sodium ions travel through these pain-sensing neurons, creating electrical nerve impulses to the brain. It is these electrical impulses which are responsible for alerting the brain to painful sensations. In people with congenital analgesia, the researchers found that the SCN11A gene was overactive, causing a build-up of  the electrical nerve impulses, which are not discharged and thus fail to transmit the pain signals to the brain. As a result, those with the disorder are numbed to all physical pain.

Kurth and her team confirmed their findings by injecting mice with a mutated form of the gene and testing the subjects to learn whether their ability to feel pain was affected. A common feature of people with congenital analgesia is the acquisition of wounds without the person realising. Indeed, the mice who received the mutated gene were found to develop such injuries, whereas the control group of mice did not.  The mice who received the gene were also noted to take over twice as long as the control group to react when a hot light beam was placed close to their tails. Speaking of the experiment, Kurth said: “What became clear from our experiments is that although there are similarities between mice and men with the mutation, the degree of pain insensitivity is more prominent in humans.”

The team hopes that with these positive results, they will be able to begin the development of new drugs which would selectively block the SCN11A channel, thus acting as a painkiller.

Sources include New Scientist

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