May 24, 2022

UCalgary researchers discover molecule in the nervous system that may hold key to treating chronic pain

Existing anti-cancer drugs could be repurposed for pain relief

Calgary, AB – A newly published study by University of Calgary researchers, reveals a potential new way to treat chronic pain using anti-cancer drugs rather than opioid-based pain medication.

By analysing a large number of genes important in the transmission of pain information to the brain, principal investigator Dr. Christophe Altier, PhD, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Inflammatory Pain, and his team have identified the existence of a molecule in the nervous system that enhances sensitivity to pain.

This molecule had previously been thought to play a role in cancer growth but had never been reported in the nervous system. It may now be possible to use already existing anti-cancer drugs to block pain.

“The most exciting part of this discovery is we don’t need to develop a new drug, we can just use the one already approved in the treatment of cancer and repurpose it to treat pain.”

Dr. Christophe Altier, PhD, associate professor with the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases in the Cumming School of Medicine

In the study, Altier’s team used drugs for treating lung cancer and a type of brain cancer, testing them on mice to see if they could control pain. They specifically tested for pain resulting from nerve injury and inflammation and found the cancer drugs worked very well. The next step is to secure funding for clinical trials on people suffering from these chronic conditions.

Altier said they will explore other types of chronic pain such as abdominal pain and post surgery pain.

Because the drugs being used already exist and have been proven safe, the timeline for this treatment to become a reality will be shorter than if they had to develop new medications. Altier has already filed a patent application for this novel treatment with study co-author Dr. Gerald Zamponi with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

This will be welcome news for chronic pain sufferers who in the future might have the option to stop taking potentially addictive opioids that require increases in doses over time to remain effective.

“With these anti-cancer drugs, there is no effect on tolerance, we don’t need to increase the  dose of the drug to obtain pain relief.”

Dr. Manon Defaye, PhD, first author on the paper

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Funding for this research came from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Dr. Christophe Altier, PhD, the Canada Research Chair in Inflammatory Pain, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is also affiliated with the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Inflammation Research Network.

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