Monday, March 20, 2017

A Way to Fix a Drug Problem Without More Drugs?

Like many of my colleagues here at PRIUM and acquaintances outside of PRIUM who focus on chronic pain day in and day out, I get all manner of articles forwarded to me from friends about opioids and related medical treatment advances.  There's the spider venom that may hold the key to a more effective non-opioid painkiller.  There's the big-data, molecular-lottery approach that promises to identify medications capable of delivering pain relief without opioid side effects.  There's the on-going debate regarding medical marijuana's potential to stem opioid use.  This is just a sampling of the many studies, articles, ideas, and whims that appear in my inbox on a regular basis.

The theme that sticks out to me is the collective focus we seem to have on fixing a drug problem with more drugs.  

This reminds me of the unsettling moment at last year's National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit here in Atlanta when Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy offered some opening remarks prior to the arrival of President Obama at the conference.  In those remarks, he outlined a five-step strategy to combat prescription drug abuse and heroin and the first two steps were medication-based (#1 was expanding access to naloxone and #2 was expanding access to suboxone).  I think highly of Dr. Murthy and applaud his critical efforts to combat addiction in all its forms.  And I'm not even sure his plan isn't exactly what we need.  I was simply struck, again, by this theme of fixing a drug problem with more drugs.  It seems somehow counter-intuitive to me or, at least, not getting at root-cause issues.

So I was intrigued last week when I read about a study out of the University of Utah, Duke University, and Washington University in St. Louis.  The collaborating bioengineers have figured out a way to potentially manipulate our genetic code to suppress chronic pain.  For those rightly uncomfortable with the idea of messing with human DNA, the researchers are not editing or replacing genes.  Instead, they're using something called the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) system to modulate the way genes turn on and off in order to protect cells from inflammation and tissue breakdown.  Early experiments point toward the possibility of eliminating the inflammation, cell death, and tissue damage associated with, say, low back pain caused by a herniated disc.  Sounds useful.  

Three quick observations:
1) This is at least 10 years away from human application.
2) Even then, it's not a panacea.  Surgery may still be required to fix underlying, biological causes of pain (though wouldn't it be nice to isolate that from non-biological, psycho-social contributors to pain?)
3) This work was funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, the likes of which could disappear if the current draft White House budget were to be adopted.

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