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People Who Don't Feel Pain Are Helping Us Find Better Pain Meds

New research has identified a gene associated with a lack of pain perception.
May 25, 2015, 3:00pm

Creating painkillers that are effective, safe, and efficient has been a struggle for modern medicine. So to aid our quest for improved pain management, researchers took a look inside the genetics of people who don't feel pain at all—and they found one gene that may hold the key to better, safer painkillers.

Congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) is an extremely rare, inherited condition that causes people to not feel any pain. It sounds kind of wonderful, but it's actually a terrifyingly dangerous way to live. Not being able to feel pain often means not being able to identify injuries or ailments, which means not properly treating injury or ailments. Imagine the damage you would do walking around on a broken leg if the pain wasn't there to force you not to walk on it. It's especially risky for young children who haven't learned how to identify possible injuries.

But studying the genes of people who have this rare condition has given researchers a glimpse at how our brains interpret pain—and how we might be able to turn it off.

Two teams of researchers from universities around the world including Cambridge, Oxford, and the Medical University of Vienna, studied the genetic makeup of 11 different families that has members with CIP. They discovered 10 different possible mutations to a specific gene, called PRDM12, in the family members who had CIP, according to a study published Monday in Nature Genetics.

Normally, neurons that will be used to detect pain are produced as a fetus grows in the womb. But for people with the variants identified in the study, the PRDM12 gene stops these neurons from developing in the first place, preventing the person from being able to sense pain throughout their lives. They confirmed this theory by testing it out on frogs, mice, and human stem cells.

Along with providing deeper insight into this rare disease, the identification of these gene variants can help us develop better painkillers for those of us who do feel pain.

"The ability to sense pain is essential to our self-preservation, yet we understand far more about excessive pain than we do about lack of pain perception," Geoff Woods, a Cambridge medical research who co-led the study, said in a press release. "Both are equally important to the development of new pain treatments—if we know the mechanisms that underlie pain sensation, we can then potentially control and reduce unnecessary pain."

You might assume we already know a lot about how the brain processes pain, since pain is such an influential force in our lives. But PRDM12 is only the fifth gene to be identified related to a lack of pain perception, and two of those genes have already lead to the development of painkillers that are currently in clinical trials.

Popping a Tylenol when you have a headache is pretty efficient pain management, but when it comes to more severe, chronic pain, we have a long way to go in finding a solution. Learning from the genes of people who never feel pain at all will get us one step closer.