British researchers have discovered a gene in mice that codes for a protein related to the experience of chronic pain.
They’ve genetically engineered a strain of mice lacking a gene called HCN2. Normal mice who have the HCN2 gene produce a protein that forms a channel that allows certain molecules into and out of cells, making the cells more excitable.
The scientists think they’re on to something important. Mice lacking the HCN2 gene (and the protein it codes for) respond normally to short-acting painful stimuli (like an electric shock or pin prick) but don’t develop chronic nerve pain (called neuropathic pain).
Scientists are excited to try to develop novel drugs that target the action of HCN2 and its protein product. If they can find a way to make this idea work, it will represent a brand new avenue to attack chronic pain. Instead of trying to wipe out all pain (the way that opiates do), this new method would leave patients with a normal acute pain response, but presumably block acute pain from metamorphosing into chronic pain.
Will It Work?
I’m typically skeptical of this type of “magical genetic thinking” – the idea that there’s a specific evil gene predisposing us to particular problems. Or that pouring a new chemical into the soup of the body’s cellular machinery will effectively treat a problem as multi-dimensional and complex as chronic pain.
On the other hand….
Chronic pain is a serious, serious problem for millions. If they can come up with something that helps, I’m all for it. I’d love to have to admit in retrospect that my attitude is too negative.
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