Pain research gets spicy

November 25, 2009 1:17:03 PM PST
Adding spices can certainly make a recipe more interesting. But at the University of California, a researcher is using a variety of spices to learn the secrets of why and how we feel pain.

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"This is the bark of the prickly ash tree that's found throughout North America and it targets a new type of receptor called KCNK," pain researcher Diana Bautista said.

With her gentile voice and table full of spices, Bautista could be your favorite aunt. But do not be fooled -- she is all about pain.

"One of the great things is there are natural plant products that target the pain system," Bautista said.

In her lab at the University of California, Bautista puts the big hurt on a nearly endless supply of microscopic neurons she cultures from cell tissue. Among her favorite weapons are molecules isolated from spicy foods like wasabi and chili peppers.

"We can take this powdered wasabi or even the crude wasabi extract, put it on neurons and see how they're activated," Bautista said.

In one experiment, an assistant adds a chili pepper extract to a genetically modified nerve cell. Fluorescent markers light up, leading Bautista and her team to the sensitive receptors.

"OK, that's good, there's capsum and that's hicaya, so you can see there are different subsets of neurons that respond to different chemicals," Bautista said.

If all this seems like the kind of research you'd do to cure stomach ache, it's actually far more significant. By better understanding how pain is actually transmitted to neurons, scientists may be able to come up with new ways to block it. So in a kind of scientific Spanish Inquisition, technicians pull and stretch the neurons on plastic membranes, poke at them with microscopic instruments and bombard them with chemicals.

The result has been the identification of several new pain receptors -- some of which have already drawn the interest of drug researchers.

"We all have these receptors and if we stop it early, we may be able to block that pain," Bautista said.

Back in the lab, Bautista's team continues to show no mercy, painfully targeting their microscopic subjects in a quest to make people feel better.

Most existing drugs for acute pain work by affecting brain processing and run the risk of side effects ranging from dizziness to addiction. Bautista's strategy could theoretically lead to drugs that avoid those issues by targeting pain receptors directly.

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