A calmer rodent is a better rodent for pain medication research

The global market for pain medications is huge — some estimates predict it will hit $41.6 billion by 2017. However, the costs of pain medicine development are huge, too; it takes roughly $900 million to bring a new analgesic compound to market. In part, this is because some 80 percent of compounds that look promising in preclinical animal studies (largely in rodents) fail in late-stage clinical trials.

David Roberson, MBA, a neuroscience graduate student in the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, wants to make those preclinical studies better at predicting whether a new compound will work safely in people — by studying rodents at “home.”

The problem, Roberson thinks, is the way researchers currently measure pain behaviors. By and large, the mouse is out in the open in a box or on a treadmill, in bright light (an environment mice hate), with researchers viewing them from above where the animal can see them.

What else watches mice in the open from above? Predators.

“In looking for pain behaviors, we’ve actually been looking at mice that are in the midst of a panic attack with a ‘predator’ present, and then [we give] them pain drugs,” Roberson told the audience during an Ignite Talk at Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2015. “It’s no wonder that we really haven’t had great results.”

Roberson’s solution is to mimic the mouse hole. His PalmReader system combines infrared night vision recordings and machine learning algorithms with an opaque “black box,” allowing them to quantitatively analyze the animal’s movements and behaviors in an environment where it will be calmer and more relaxed to begin with.

“We put a mouse in a box, in the dark…and we look at them from below,” he told the audience, “a view that a predator would never naturally see.”

Roberson believes this technology could help researchers gather strong, relevant data on the effects of pain drugs at clinically relevant doses — something that no other rodent screening method for pain has achieved to date. The hospital’s Technology and Innovation Development Office recently gave Roberson’s team a grant to further develop and refine the system.

See more posts and videos from the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit.