Imagine clothing feeling like a blowtorch against your skin. Now imagine driving a nail through your foot and continuing to walk because you can’t feel a thing. These are conditions at the opposite end of the pain spectrum but share one biological commonality – a mutation in a single gene. Scientists have discovered that this mutation can cause or inhibit pain.
The name of this gene is SCN9A and belongs to a family of genes that provide instructions for making sodium channels. These structures allow electrical charges to flow into nerve cells, triggering a signal of pain. If the sodium channel doesn’t exist the brain does not receive any signal that it has encountered pain. Conversely, if these channels exist and are open for too long, your feeling of pain intensifies. The breakthrough comes from linking the SCN9A gene to the sodium channel Nav1.7. Dr. Stephen Waxman, Director at the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research at Yale University of Medicine, and his research team made this amazing discovery.
The search is now on for a drug that could regulate or even turn off the Nav1.7 sodium channel for those that suffer from chronic pain. In light of the opioid crisis in America, this discovery is shockingly well timed and the scale of people it can help is almost impossible to comprehend. Name the source of the pain – arthritis, diabetes, broken bones, burns. cancer – all controlled without the use of addictive opioids.