Most of us don’t like feeling pain, but we know how important it is. Pain is the warning signal that lets us know when we’re injured or ill.
One of the extraordinary people we came across during our research was Steven. He is ordinary in almost every way, but unlike most of us he has a rare condition that means he can’t feel any pain.
‘When I’m overcome with nausea, exhaustion or aches it may just be a cold, but it could be deadly serious like a burst appendix. My life is full of potentially dangerous situations because I don’t feel pain.’
Clinical geneticist Geoff Woods was among the first to report that some people who don’t feel pain carry a genetic mutation that affects the pain-sensing nerves in their bodies. None of their pain receptors send signals to their brains. Geoff explains:
‘Some painless people have a small mutation in an area of their genetic code that is essential to make a pain channel in their nerves. Without the channel it’s impossible to send pain signals to the brain. By studying people like Steven’s DNA we can eventually understand why he doesn’t feel pain. More importantly, it tells us how the rest of us do.’
Powerful gene sequencers such as this one can read an entire human genome in one day and identify the no-pain genetic mutation. We’ve got our hands on this clever piece of kit for Pain Less.
Natural born painkillers
Researchers are now working to understand exactly how this mutation blocks pain signals to the brain to try and mimic it, and create the ultimate painkiller.
They may have found the answer from a very unusual source – snake and spider venom. Venom is a cocktail of different molecules used to incapacitate prey and deter predators.
Biochemist Glenn King is investigating some molecules in this noxious mix that stop pain in the same way as the no-pain genetic mutation. These molecules block a channel in the body’s nerves to stop pain signals from reaching the brain.
So rather than start from scratch to synthesise these complex molecules, pharmaceutical companies are looking to venomous sea snails, spiders, snakes and scorpions to provide vital ingredients for the next generation of painkillers.
Jasmine’s favourite find
Jasmine Spavieri, one of our Assistant Content Developers, describes how she sourced one of the most striking objects in our exhibition…
‘One exceptional story we found was that of Steve Trim, a former chronic pain patient and a pain researcher. After finding a treatment that worked to cure his pain, Steve was inspired to accept a job working in pain research.
‘He discovered that the use of venom as a potential medication is a growing field of research. He decided to start his own biotech company – or as we like to call it “venom farm” – and is now the director of Venomtech. His laboratory provides an array of “fresh” venoms, from snakes to spiders and scorpions. Steve also gives educational talks to school groups and answered the questions of our young participatory group from Langley Academy.
‘Steve has been kind enough to provide us with what I think is one of our coolest objects, the skin and fangs of a huge tarantula, along with some milking equipment!’
I’m relieved it’s not a snake – they give me the heebie-jeebies.