Genetic research is amazing. Now I’ve learned that not only can genes be switched on and off in terms of whether they make a particular protein or not, there’s a gene which can be viewed as having a fixed rheostat dimmer switch which controls the amount of protein produced. In my last blog, I referred to the mechanism which determines whether a gene will produce a particular protein either as a post it note on a chapter gene or a switch, which can be turned on or off. Scientists very effectively use analogies to describe difficult concepts. I think the switch analogy works better for today’s blog.
Just as there is a gene for nearly everything related to the human body, there is a gene, SCN9A, which produces a protein, Nav1.7, which accounts for pain. Pain, of course, while agonizing, protects us from severe burns and other damage to our bodies.
There is a family in Pakistan whose members feel no pain. In fact, a young member of the family performs street theater, walking on hot coals and stabbing himself with a knife. The boy is a legend in his village. Another family in China experiences extreme inadvertent pain with no cause. Both families suffer from mutations of the SCN9A gene. The street performer’s gene has a broken switch or one set to permanently off. The SCN9A gene of the Chinese family produces too much of the pain producing protein.
Given, the number of people with chronic pain along with the addictive nature of popular painkillers, drug companies are searching for ways to harness the SCN9A gene to harmlessly combat pain. “That’s the dream,” said David Hackos, a senior scientist at Genentech, which has two Nav1.7 treatments in the first stage of clinical development.
The research is in its infancy and has already experienced one failure by Pfizer.
Biogen acquired Convergence Pharmaceuticals to get its hands on Nav1.7 inhibitors. Ideally, an inhibitor would dial down rather than eliminate all pain. Amgen is in the early stages with a similar project, and Purdue Pharma, launched a joint venture last year specifically focused on Nav1.7 drugs.
For all those who suffer chronic pain, I wish them success!
Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nav1.7