Centre for Pain Research

One in five Australians suffers from chronic pain. It is one of the most under-recognised and undertreated medical problems and is now becoming recognized as a disease. It is a problem that costs the Australian economy $34billion a year and costs sufferers significantly in quality of life. Current treatments for pain either don’t work, or have terrible side effects, like drug addiction. This centre seeks to change that.

Scientists at the Centre for Pain Research are searching for new treatment options for pain. The diversity of researchers applying their skills to pain, covering the breadth of research from discovery to the clinic, combined with cutting edge facilities that drive output, is hard to match internationally. The Centre for Pain Research is the only research centre to have successfully discovered a peptide and translated it to the clinic.  

We approach the problem in three ways.

  1. We search for new painkillers in the natural world – screening chemical diversity for new opportunities. We identify weaknesses and modify the molecule to optimise its potential as a pain drug.  
  2. We uncover pain targets, illustrating how molecules behave within the pain pathways in our bodies. This knowledge improves the effectiveness of drugs and reduces unwanted side effects.
  3. We map the pain pathways within the body to determine how we feel pain and uncover new pain pathways for targeting.

Contact

General information and enquiries
Email: pain@imb.uq.edu.au

Research enquiries
Professor Richard Lewis 
Director, IMB Centre for Pain Research
Email: r.lewis@imb.uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 3346 2984
View Professor Lewis's research profile

Dr Irina Vetter
Deputy Director, Centre for Pain Research
Email: i.vetter@imb.uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 3346 2660  
View Dr Vetter's research profile


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Director

  • Professor Richard Lewis

    Director, IMB Centre for Pain Research
    Professorial Research Fellow
    Institute for Molecular Bioscience

Deputy Director

  • Dr Irina Vetter

    Deputy Director, IMB Centre for Pain Research
    ARC Future Fellow
    Institute for Molecular Bioscience

Chief Investigators

Discovering new painkillers

Familiar painkillers, or analgesics, such as paracetamol and aspirin, are not always effective in managing peoples pain, while stronger painkillers, such as morphine, can be highly addictive and can produce unwanted side effects.

 

The IMB Centre for Pain Research (CPR) is looking at animal venoms—such as those found in centipedes, spiders and cone snails—to develop new and more effective painkilling drugs. CPR uses a broad and comprehensive panel of assays for pain targets, addressing aspects of pain initiation and transmission using state-of-the-art screening technologies.

Pinpointing pain targets

Researchers are investigating how pain targets behave within pain pathways, right down to the molecular level, so they can work to improve the effectiveness of painkilling drugs, as well as prevent addiction and the unpleasant side effects associated with current drugs.

Using advanced NMR and X-ray crystallographic approaches, scientists can obtain accurate three-dimensional structure of molecules and precisely position the residues contributing to affinity. This knowledge will be used to improve target specificity, and, in parallel, will engineer out off-target liabilities to improve the therapeutic window of drug leads.

Mapping pain pathways

How the body feels pain is still not well understood. At the CPR, our research maps the complex pain pathways within our body. This will help us to better understand what can cause chronic pain. It will also help us to uncover new pain pathways in the body that could be targeted by painkillers.

Testing potential new treatments

CPR assesses the effectiveness of newly discovered compounds in the pain pathway of experimental models. Information gathered through this approach helps identify preferred compounds/candidate molecules, suitable patient populations, dosing routes, as well as strategies to minimise side effects in people living with pain.

Drug development

Molecules or drug targets that prove to be effective in managing pain in the lab will be chemically modified to be suitable for manufacturing. Researchers work to maximise storage and enzyme stability, ease of synthesis, and plasma half-life in vivo, without compromising therapeutic index, efficacy or safety.

What is pain?

Pain is an unpleasant warning sign of tissue damage. Doctors group pain into two types: acute and chronic.

Acute pain lasts for a short time and usually results from an injury or an operation. It is the body’s warning sign that help is needed.

Chronic pain lasts beyond the normal time it takes the body to heal. It has many causes, including cancer, chemotherapy drugs, diabetes, nerve damage, and severe injuries such as burns. Some people also experience chronic pain without a direct cause, and chronic pain is now becoming recognised as a disease in its own right.

One in five Australians, and one in three Australians over the age of 65, suffer from chronic pain, which remains one of the most under-recognised and under-treated medical problems.

The economic cost of treating chronic pain in Australia exceeds $34 billion per year, which is more than the cost of treating cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Many types of chronic pain (e.g. neuropathic pain) are poorly treated by current-generation analgesics (‘painkillers’) due to lack of efficacy and/or dose-limiting side effects. New classes of analgesics are required to better manage the complex conditions of acute and chronic pain.

Our aim is to understand the mechanisms underlying the origins and transmission of pain, and to use this knowledge to produce more effective analgesics and improve quality of life for the increasing number of Australians living with pain.

Burns pain is an injury to the skin or other organic tissue, which is primarily caused by heat, radiation, radioactivity, electricity, friction or contact with chemicals.

Young children have had the highest rates of hospital admission due to burns in Australia in recent years (1999–00 to 2003–04)

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2004) estimated that the cost to hospitals due to admitted cases of burn and scald injuries in Australia for the single year 1999–00 was $40.2 million, and for 2001–02 was about $38.7 million. 

Fast facts

  • 1 in 5 Australians suffer from chronic pain
  • 28% of Australians have arthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions. That’s around 6.1 million people
  • $34 billion is the estimated annual cost of treating chronic pain in Australia
  • 10 IMB Centre for Pain Research scientists dedicated to investigating pain treatments
  • 14% of Australians (3 million people) are affected by back problems, followed by 8% with osteoarthritis (1.8 million people), 3% with osteoporosis (728,00 people) and 2% with rheumatoid arthritis (445,00 people).
  • Injury is the most common cause of chronic pain (38%)

Source: The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, BUPA Australia.

Living with chronic pain

Kristine has lived with chronic pain since a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2008.

“Chronic pain isn’t like other diseases — there are no visible symptoms and it’s hard to measure, which makes treatment a constant challenge.

The pain research happening here in Queensland is very exciting and could offer new and improved ways to help me manage my pain in the near future.”

 

Susanne is a local Gordon Park resident and a long-term chronic pain sufferer. She was one of the many people to attend UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) Centre for Pain Research (CPR) launch event held at the IMB.

Susanne wanted to learn more about the pain research being done in Queensland, and is passionate about increasing awareness of chronic pain in the community.

“I have worked for years in hospitality, but I just can’t do it anymore,” Susanne said.

“I would wake up with more pain than when I went to bed ­– that’s when you know something is wrong,” she said.

Susanne suffers from both osteoarthritis, and neuropathic pain as a result of previous surgery to remove cancer. She is currently on several medications, but still finds managing her pain difficult.

“I have good days and bad days ­– it’s a constant battle to find something that works for me. The problem is, some of the painkillers prescribed also worsen depression in patients. Chronic pain sufferers can also be diagnosed with debilitating depression. We don’t want to take a drug that helps with pain but makes us seriously depressed, but unfortunately there aren’t currently many options for us”.

In addition, the costs of the medications, physiotherapy, and acupuncture to manage her pain are an ongoing concern.

“I often have to wait until I can afford to buy the medications I need,” she said.

“Raising awareness about chronic pain and increasing care for those who suffer, like myself, is so important. I am happy to support events such as this CPR launch if it helps to raise awareness of chronic pain in the community,” Susanne said. 

Resources and Links

For more information about living with chronic pain, and peer support, visit: Chronic Pain Australia

Other useful resources can be found at:

 

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