Unlocking the Genetic Code of Pain

New genetic finding could help treat chronic pain

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Imagine two people who have the exact same injury. One develops chronic, lifelong pain, while the other does not. This is scenario is frequently true – but why?

Scientists have suspected that your genes can determine whether or not you experience chronic pain along with an injury or disorder. Now, a recent study has pinpointed a gene that seems to affect chronic pain sensitivity, and suggests a new way to treat chronic pain.

"See your doctor if you are experiencing chronic pain and not responding to treatment."

The study was led by University of Toronto Professor Michael Salter of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and Professor Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal, and published in Nature Medicine.

In the study, the authors write, “Chronic pain is highly variable between individuals, as is the response to analgesics.” That means that just as it's difficult to predict whether a patient will experience chronic pain, it's hard to know if they'll respond to standard treatments.

That's why understanding the genetic basis of pain is important. If doctors can identify a patient with a gene that makes them prone to chronic pain, they may be able to take a more effective course of treatment.

The hope is that one day a drug will be developed that targets the genetic root of pain, rather than giving patients painkillers to numb the symptoms.

The gene is called P2X7. The researchers discovered that its receptors control two big causes of chronic pain, inflammation and nerve damage.

The mechanism that controls pain sensitivity in the pain receptor is the formation of “pores” that allow large molecules to flow through.

The researchers got a closeup look at how this mechanism works in mice, but they also studied humans who had chronic post-mastectomy pain and osteoarthritis. Patients who had low pore formation had lower levels of pain.

They found that a peptide – a string of amino acids – targeting pore formation had the ability to affect pain behavior.

The researchers are hopeful that drugs can be developed to treat chronic pain on an individual, genetic level.

The study was published in March 2012.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 27, 2012
Last Updated:
March 28, 2012