You have to love a medical story that starts with newts. Newt eggs to be precise. Back in the 1960s, a Stanford chemist Harry Mosher (who died in 2001) collected eggs from newts on campus and isolated a toxin that turned out to be identical to the one in puffer fish. (Note to self: avoid eating newts or newt eggs found on campus.)
Many decades later, those toxins he studied and variants thereof are widely used in medical research. They latch on to tiny pores on nerve cells and prevent those nerves from firing—seen as a negative if you are eating a pufferfish, but a positive to researchers working in a lab trying to understand the inner workings of nerves.
Recently, Stanford chemist Justin Du Bois, PhD, teamed up with radiologist Sandip Biswal, MD, who studies the origins of pain, to see if this group of chemicals could be used to better understand (and maybe one day treat) pain. I wrote a story about the work and described Biswal’s frustration diagnosing the source of pain:
Biswal, an associate professor of radiology at the Stanford University Medical Center, spent a lot of time imaging parts of the body where people said they felt pain, trying to find the source. It was a frustrating task because often the source of pain isn’t obvious, and sometimes the source is far removed from where a person feels the sensation of pain. Other times, he’d see something that looked painful, surgeons would fix it, and the patient would still be in pain.
Along with some other collaborators, Du Bois and Biswal figured out a way to manipulate the toxins Du Bois had been studying so that they would latch onto nerves that send pain signals and be visible outside the body. When they tested the chemical in rats, they were able to see the location of pain in a living animal.
As with so much cool research, the team got its start with a seed grant from Stanford’s Bio-X. They recently started a company to see if they could develop their work into a useful drug or imaging technique.
Previously: Stanford researchers address the complexities of chronic pain, Exploring the mystery of pain, More progress in the quest for a “painometer”, Ask Stanford Med: Neuroscientist responds to questions on pain and love’s analgesic effects
Photo by Jason Mintzer Shutterstock