Deadly animals helping us understand pain

30 June 2016

Toxins from snakes, spiders, jellyfish and scorpions are helping scientists to better understand how pain works, with the hope of managing chronic pain more effectively.

Pain comes in many forms, requiring different treatments and often making it difficult to manage. Many painkillers have negative side effects including addiction, and for some the painkillers don’t even work.

“Many drugs achieve around 50 per cent pain relief in only one-third of patients. That’s not good enough,” says Dr Irina Vetter, Deputy Director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience’s Centre for Pain Research at The University of Queensland.

Irina is looking at the pathways that are affected when the body is exposed to toxins from venomous animals, and the genetic changes associated with the pain they cause.

“Venoms have evolved over time to have very specific effects on the nervous system of prey, with some of the venom components causing pain, and others blocking pain pathways,” Irina says.

“Components that cause pain help us to understand pain pathways, and components that block pain have direct potential as painkillers.”

For cancer patients, pain is the major side effect that limits dosage of some types of chemotherapy.

“If we can manage the pain, we can continue treatment at a high dose while maintaining a better quality of life,” Irina says.

Irina hopes the research will lead to smarter approaches to managing pain, perhaps moving into personalised medicine where patients will be able to go to their doctor and get a blood test to determine the mechanism of their pain, then be treated with the appropriate painkiller from the beginning.

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