The first treatment blocking human pain is being developed thanks to researchers at the University College London.
Studying genetically modified mice, researchers at the University College London have found that a nerve channel is key to blocking human pain. The nerve channel is known as Nav 1.7 and is a sodium channel. The role of Nav 1.7 is to signal pain. By targeting the sodium channel with a combination of two drugs, the research team believes they have the first treatment blocking human pain.
Nerve channels are crucial pathways for nerve cells to signal feelings to the nervous system. The genetically modified mice used in the study lacked the sodium channel Nav 1.7. Previous research conducted on human patients found that people who do not have a functioning Nav 1.7 cannot feel pain.
For others, who have a functioning Nav 1.7, chronic pain is being conventionally treated with either opioids or broad-spectrum channel blockers. However, both treatment options present numerous side effects which renders them inefficient on the long-term. Broad-spectrum channel blockers cause severe numbness and other side effects. Opioids on the other hand have been proven to be highly addictive and also present a cohort of other side effects.
For this reason, researchers at the University College London looked at a different treatment option that can provide pain relief in human patients. As it happened with the genetically modified mice, patients who do not have a functioning Nav 1.7 also have higher levels of opioids naturally. Together, the two conditions prevent feeling pain.
As such, the first treatment blocking human pain is being developed based on these findings. John Wood, professor with the University College London stated that it took almost a decade of trials to understand that the sodium channel Nav 1.7 is the key in fighting chronic pain.
According to John Wood, the two-drug treatment the patenting of which is being currently pursued, combines opioids with Nav 1.7 blockers. The approach has been tested on mice based on the findings of the study on genetically modified mice.
The research team first treated the genetically modified mice with an opioid blocker called Nav 1.7 naloxone. In the absence of a functioning sodium channel, blocking the release of opioid peptides rendered the genetically modified mice vulnerable to pain. The same treatment has been applied to a human patient – a 39-year-old woman – who was found to lack a functioning Nav 1.7. Following the treatment she could feel pain.
The findings of this study set the basis for a future development of the two-drug treatment approach to offer human patients a pain-free life. According to the researchers, the clinical trials should begin in 2017. The study features in the Nature Communications journal.
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