Chronic pain affects around 20 per cent of the world’s population at any one time. It is the most common reason people seek medical help in Australia. Chronic pain often goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression.
Short chains of amino acids—known as peptides—may offer hope. A collaboration between neurobiologists at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health at The University of Melbourne and CNRS units affiliated with the Universities of Bordeaux and Strasbourg has made significant progress towards an entirely new approach to treating pain.
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.
For the one in five Australians of working age suffering from serious chronic pain, the options for relief are strictly limited. There’s morphine and . . . well, there’s morphine. But now one of the most powerful toxins in the natural world—the venom of marine cone snails—offers hope of a future free of pain and addiction, say researchers at RMIT University.
“The big problems with morphine are addictiveness and the fact that people develop a tolerance to it,” says Professor David Adams, director of the RMIT Health Innovations Research Institute. “With the painkillers derived from cone snail venom, we don’t have those problems. People don’t develop tolerance, and they don’t get hooked.
The University of Melbourne’s Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Pharmacology have over recent years identified cone shell venom as a potential treatment for chronic pain in humans.
Researchers continue to develop the research into a commercialised product. One of the venom peptides identified is currently in phase two of clinical trials.
Most people recover from whiplash injuries within the first few months. However, some people have long term pain—lasting months or years. Until now there has been no way of diagnosing these more severe cases.
New research suggests that fat deposits in the neck muscles are the key.
“We’ve found that people with long term injury have large amounts of fat infiltration in their neck muscles,” says Dr James Elliott from the University of Queensland (and former US professional baseball player). “Something is causing that difference, and it isn’t their body weight,” he says.