Scientists from the University College London (UCL) have helped a 39-year-old woman feel pain for the first time, and hope to use their findings to develop effective pain killers.

The woman (who remains anonymous in the report) is one of a select few with congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), a very rare condition that inhibits the human brain’s ability to sense physical pain.

Individuals who have the condition are affected from birth, meaning they spend their lives not being able to feel injuries they have incurred. This lack of pain often leads to a succession of wounds, bruises, broken bones and many other health issues that remain undetected.

Physical pain is the body’s way of preventing us from causing further harm, so conditions such as CIP can be very dangerous and those who suffer from it often die prematurely.

So when UCL professor and neurobiologist, John Wood, asked the woman to participate in the study, she positively jumped at the chance. “I think she quite enjoyed the experiment,” Wood told a reporter from the New Scientist.

Wood’s findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, are not only a step forward in understanding why these people can’t feel pain, it is also a major breakthrough for those who feel too much.

Wood and his team were able to work backwards from experiments on the 39-year-old woman and on mice that had been genetically modified to exhibit the CIP mutation; an anomaly that affects the gene responsible for producing Nav.1.7 channels- the pathways that allow the transmission of signals from pain-sensing nerves to the brain. This process enabled the scientists to pinpoint what they have now called the “secret ingredient” to painlessness.

By blending compounds called opioid peptides with drugs that block communication networks between the human body and the brain, Wood was able to replicate the painlessness felt by those with CIP in ordinary mice.

This combination of opioid peptides and Nav.1.7 blocking, similar to that which produces painlessness in those who suffer from CIP, Wood and his team were able to produce an effective cure for physical suffering. Wood writes in his study that the therapy has the potential to provide relief to millions of people currently suffering debilitating physical pain.

Image via Shutterstock.

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