Reengineering Life is a column from Future Human about the ways humans are using biology to reprogram our bodies and the world around us.
In 2006, scientists described the curious case of a Pakistani boy who seemed immune to pain. The 10-year-old street performer amazed audiences by walking on burning coals and stabbing himself with knives without flinching.
His resistance to pain later led him to jump off a building to impress his friends. Tragically, he died from the resulting injuries. He had just turned 14.
Several of the boy’s relatives had never experienced pain either. When researchers collected samples of their blood and analyzed their genes, they found that they all harbored mutations in a gene called SCN9A. Two other families in northern Pakistan were found to have similar mutations that made them unable to feel pain.
Now, a biotech startup wants to mimic this mutation to treat people with chronic pain. In a new paper published March 10 in Science Translational Medicine, researchers used the gene-editing technique CRISPR to successfully repress the gene and increase pain tolerance in mice. The effects lasted up to 44 weeks. If it proves safe in people, the therapy could offer an alternative to opioids, the authors say.
Opioids are a highly addictive class of drugs that alter the brain’s perception of pain. An estimated 20% of U.S. adults suffer from chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many are prescribed powerful opioids to help them cope. In recent years, there’s been a push by pharma to find nonaddictive pain therapies.
“There’s a huge opioid epidemic in the United States, and there’s really nothing working for these patients,” Ana Moreno, PhD, CEO of Navega Therapeutics and first author on the study, tells Future Human. Moreno founded the company in 2018 along with co-author Prashant Mali, PhD, a bioengineering professor at the University of California, San Diego, when she was still a doctoral student in his lab.
“The problem is, we need pain to live…