Shutting Down Pain

What if you never felt pain? Sounds great, right? "We need pain," says David Hackos, neuroscientist at Genentech, "in order to protect ourselves from injury." There are actually people in the world that can't feel pain. They’re not superheroes; in fact, their condition can make it difficult for them to avoid injuries. These unique people may offer a clue to understanding the biology of pain, as well as a new way to manage it.

In 2001, a company called Xenon began to analyze data from people who lacked sensitivity to pain; they discovered a genetic mutation that disabled a specific sodium channel called NaV 1.7. There are nine sodium channels in the body, but the surprising thing they learned from the genetics was that only NaV 1.7 was required to transmit pain signals to the brain.

We partnered with Xenon in 2012 to develop a novel sodium channel inhibitor that mimics this genetic mutation. The molecule targets NaV 1.7 by exploiting a mechanism in the voltage sensors that open and close the channel. This collaboration marks our first efforts towards a potential medicine to treat chronic pain. For more—including robots, gladiators, helicopters, and some rockstar scientists—watch the video below.