When it comes to a person’s levels of intoxication, breathalyzers have been in use for many years, providing a way to take a subjective judgment and make it more scientifically accurate. But what about the equivalent test for gauging a person’s pain levels? Such a tool could be incredibly useful when it comes to helping physicians accurately measure the severity of a patient’s pain levels — and be able to better hone treatment as a result.
There has thus far been no way of doing this. Instead, clinicians have had to rely on patients self-reporting this information. Not only is this subjective, but it is also open to possible abuse. Fortunately, new work from researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine could change things forever. They have discovered biomarkers in blood that can make objective determinations about exactly how much pain a person is in.
“These biomarkers can be used to identify who is at risk of future pain episodes, and intervene early to prevent such episodes,” Indiana University psychiatry professor Alexander Niculescu told Digital Trends. “They can also be used to precisely match patients to medications that they would respond to. Last but not least, they provide an objective readout for pain, and a way of measuring response to treatment. For an individual already in pain, they do not need biomarkers to tell them they are suffering — but they need biomarkers to precisely match them with the best treatment. It also provides objective proof that it is not all in their head; they are not making it up. When the biomarkers are improving with treatment, it provides hope.”
One potentially transformative application of the work could be to help counter the opioid epidemic in North America. Instead of over-prescribing opioids, future physicians will be able to match up the biomarkers in a patient’s blood to all available treatment options. The goal would be to find the compound best able to normalize a particular pain signature, whether that be existing medications or natural alternatives.
“We would like to conduct more extensive studies, in larger populations, to establish normative levels of these biomarkers in different subpopulations, with different diagnoses, and which medications should be used for those subpopulations,” Niculescu continued. “Already in our initial work, we are seeing gender differences. We hope to attract philanthropy and grants to accelerate this research, and commercial partnerships to move it into clinical practice, as well as with pharma companies to accelerated drug development. We want everything to be done using the highest standards, with FDA approval — and all that takes time and money.”
A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
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