A New Test Aims to Objectively Measure Pain. It Could Help Legitimate Sufferers Access the Meds They Need.
"That throbbing you feel for the first minute after a door slams on your finger."
This is how Central Florida resident Bridgett Willkie describes the attacks of pain caused by her sickle cell anemia – a genetic blood disorder in which a patient's red blood cells become shaped like sickles and get stuck in blood vessels, thereby obstructing the flow of blood and oxygen.
"I found myself being labeled as an addict and I never was."
Willkie's lifelong battle with the condition has led to avascular necrosis in both of her shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. This means that her bone tissue is dying due to insufficient blood supply (sickle cell anemia is among the medical conditions that can decrease blood flow to one's bones).
"That adds to the pain significantly," she says. "Every time my heart beats, it hurts. And the pain moves. It follows the path of circulation. I liken it to a traffic jam in my veins."
For more than a decade, she received prescriptions for Oxycontin. Then, four years ago, her hematologist – who had been her doctor for 18 years – suffered a fatal heart attack. She says her longtime doctor's replacement lacked experience treating sickle cell patients and was uncomfortable writing her a prescription for opioids. What's more, this new doctor wanted to place her in a drug rehab facility.
"Because I refused to go, he stopped writing my scripts," she says. The ensuing three months were spent at home, detoxing. She describes the pain as unbearable. "Sometimes I just wanted to die."
One of the effects of the opioid epidemic is that many legitimate pain patients have seen their opioids significantly reduced or downright discontinued because of their doctors' fears of over-prescribing addictive medications.
"I found myself being labeled as an addict and I never was...Being treated like a drug-seeking patient is degrading and humiliating," says Willkie, who adds that when she is at the hospital, "it's exhausting arguing with the doctors...You dread them making their rounds because every day they come in talking about weaning you off your meds."
Situations such as these are fraught with tension between patients and doctors, who must remain wary about the risk of over-prescribing powerful and addictive medications. Adding to the complexity is that it can be very difficult to reliably assess a patient's level of physical pain.
However, this difficulty may soon decline, as Indiana University School of Medicine researchers, led by Dr. Alexander B. Niculescu, have reportedly devised a way to objectively assess physical pain by analyzing biomarkers in a patient's blood sample. The results of a study involving more than 300 participants were published earlier this year in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Niculescu – who is both a professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the IU School of Medicine – explains that, when someone is in severe physical pain, a blood sample will show biomarkers related to intracellular adhesion and cell-signaling mechanisms. He adds that some of these biomarkers "have prior convergent evidence from animal or human studies for involvement in pain."
Aside from reliably measuring pain severity, Niculescu says blood biomarkers can measure the degree of one's response to treatment and also assess the risk of future recurrences of pain. He believes this new method's greatest benefit, however, might be the ability to identify a number of non-opioid medications that a particular patient is likely to respond to, based on his or her biomarker profile.
Clearly, such a method could be a gamechanger for pain patients and the professionals who treat them. As of yet, health workers have been forced to make crucial decisions based on their clinical impressions of patients; such impressions are invariably subjective. A method that enables people to prove the extent of their pain could remove the stigma that many legitimate pain patients face when seeking to obtain their needed medicine. It would also improve their chances of receiving sufficient treatment.
Niculescu says it's "theoretically possible" that there are some conditions which, despite being severe, might not reveal themselves through his testing method. But he also says that, "even if the same molecular markers that are involved in the pain process are not reflected in the blood, there are other indirect markers that should reflect the distress."
Niculescu expects his testing method will be available to the medical community at large within one to three years.
Willkie says she would welcome a reliable pain assessment method. Well-aware that she is not alone in her plight, she has more than 500 Facebook friends with sickle cell disease, and she says that "all of their opioid meds have been restricted or cut" as a result of the opioid crisis. Some now feel compelled to find their opioids "on the streets." She says she personally has never obtained opioids this way. Instead, she relies on marijuana to mitigate her pain.
Niculescu expects his testing method will be available to the medical community at large within one to three years: "It takes a while for things to translate from a lab setting to a commercial testing arena."
In the meantime, for Willkie and other patients, "we have to convince doctors and nurses that we're in pain."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.