Stories about: neuropathic pain

Deconstructing neuropathic pain: Could it give clues to better drugs?

neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain is chronic pain originating through some malfunction of the nervous system, often triggered by an injury. It causes hypersensitivity to innocuous stimuli and is often extremely debilitating. It doesn’t respond to existing painkillers — even opioids can’t reach it well.

New research in a mouse model, described last week in Cell Reports, deconstructed neuropathic pain and could offer new leads for treating it. The carefully done study showed that two major neuropathic pain symptoms in patients — extreme touch sensitivity and extreme cold sensitivity — operate through separate pathways.

“We think this separation will allow targeted drug-based therapies in the future,” says Michael Costigan, PhD, of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, who was the study’s senior investigator. “If our results stand experimental scrutiny by others, this will be profoundly important in our overall understanding of neuropathic pain.”

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Modeling pain in a dish: Nociceptors made from skin recreate pain physiology

Pain in a dish nociceptors

Chronic pain, affecting tens of millions of Americans alone, is debilitating and demoralizing. It has many causes, and in the worst cases, people become “hypersensitized”—their nervous systems fire off pain signals in response to very minor triggers.

There are no good medications to calm these signals, in part because the subjectivity of pain makes it difficult to study, and in part because there haven’t been good research models. Drugs have been tested in animal models and “off the shelf” cell lines, some of them engineered to carry target molecules (such as the ion channels that trigger pain signals). Drug candidates emerging from these studies initially looked promising but haven’t panned out in clinical testing.

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Mounting a lasting blockade against pain

Saxitoxin produced by dinoflagellates (above), algae and shellfish could help stop neuropathic pain before it starts. (fickleandfreckled/Flickr)

A cut, a bruise, a scrape…these can all cause pain that, while unpleasant, usually passes quickly. But for an estimated 3.75 million children and adults in the United States with neuropathic pain, the pain is debilitating and never goes away.

Caused by diabetes, shingles, nerve trauma, cancer and other conditions, neuropathic pain is basically a sign that someone’s nervous system has lost track of what should and shouldn’t cause pain.

There are ways to treat or control neuropathic pain, like lifestyle changes and a range of medications, but they don’t target it at its source. Boston Children’s Hospital’s Daniel Kohane, MD, PhD, wants to do just that: to go for the root of neuropathic pain, maybe even stop it before it starts. And he’s doing it with microscopic beads full of a neurotoxin found in shellfish. 

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