A gene responsible for chronic back pain has been identified by UK scientists and could hold the key to the development of drugs to combat the problem.

In a study, researchers at the University of Cambridge engineered the removal of the HCN2 gene from pain-sensitive nerves in mice and were able to abolish neuropathic pain.

The scientists then carried out studies using electrical stimuli on these nerves in cell cultures to determine how their properties were altered by the removal of HCN2. They found that they were able to delete the gene without affecting acute pain, which occurs suddenly, for example when biting one’s tongue.

Lead author Professor Peter McNaughton said, “Many genes play a critical role in pain sensation, but in most cases interfering with them simply abolishes all pain, or even all sensation. What is exciting about the work on the HCN2 gene is that removing it – or blocking it pharmacologically – eliminates neuropathic pain without affecting normal acute pain.”

Around one in seven people in the UK suffers from chronic pain of some kind, the most common being arthritis, back pain and headaches.

More intractable is a second variety of chronic pain, neuropathic pain, in which nerve damage causes on-going pain and a hypersensitivity to stimuli.

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Professor McNaughton added, “Individuals suffering from neuropathic pain often have little or no respite because of the lack of effective medications. Our research lays the groundwork for the development of new drugs to treat chronic pain by blocking HCN2.”

The study, published in the journal Science, was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the EU.