Can the woman who feels no pain guide us to a safe pain-reliever?

2019 April 11

Medical Science has struggled for centuries to relieve pain and suffering. The search usually ends with an opioid which, unfortunately, needs to be used carefully for its various side effects, including the possibility of addiction. A 71-year old woman in the UK, it now appears, may lead us to an answer.

This woman went to a hospital for a surgery that should ordinarily have been very painful. She required no pain medicines except for one dose of Paracetamol, which possibly she did not need. An astute doctor was curious. He went into her medical history: at the age of 65, she had undergone a hip surgery which again should have been painful, but wasn’t. This time, it led to research, which showed that she had not only no pain sensation; but also¬†never experienced any anxiety about anything. She would know of a burn on her skin only when she smelled burning flesh! Her wounds heal fast. The geneticists’ search led to a pseudogene.

Now here is how we, non-geneticists, interpret this:

Pseudogenes are junk genes, so far thought to be of no use. Their presence caused the woman’s freedom from pain. We now understand that they are not really junk genes; they could potentially lead us to safe ways of relieving pain.

Interestingly, of her two children, the daughter feels pain normally, but her son has diminished pain sensation, though not complete loss of pain as in the mother.

This is different from the total absence of pain that some children may be born with. In such cases, children sustain injuries because of pain as a protectant, and die in childhood.

The article is available for free download at: https://bjanaesthesia.org/article/S0007-0912(19)30138-2/pdf

Can someone who understands genetics give us more information about this pseudogene and its potential impact, in layman’s language? We will be very grateful.

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