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Javier Sáez Castresana, Full Professor of Genetics of the School of Sciences, University of Navarra
A award against pain
research The 2010 Prince of Asturias Award award will be given to three researchers who, working in different experimental models, sought something in common: the understanding of the genesis, transmission and chronification of pain, as well as its possible treatment. They are Linda Watkins, David Julius and Baruch Minke, from the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of California-San Francisco and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, respectively.
Linda Watkins' finding is concerned with the role of glia cells (non-neuronal cells of the nervous system) in pain control. Glia cells are found in the human nervous system in 10 to 50 times greater proportion than neurons, serving as structural, nutritional and even sweeping support for dead neurons. Some produce the neuronal insulation needed to increase the speed of nerve impulse transmission. "You would never have thought that glia could increase neuropathic pain, but they do. The role of opioids in pain control, via opioid receptors, is known. But Dr. Watkins has shown that glial cells also respond to opioids through a receptor, TLR4, by secreting products that induce neuroexcitation and inflammation, whereupon the pain becomes chronic and the patient becomes tolerant (needing increasing amounts of opioids), dependent (if he stops taking the drugs he is presented with a host of disorders) and may even suffer severe respiratory distress. It remains to be investigated how to medicate the opioids so that they fulfill their function, while inhibiting the TLR4 receptors with another drug, to avoid the glial activation that would make the desired analgesia impossible.
David Julius has pioneered the molecular analysis of nociception and the determination of the anatomical pathways that transmit pain. Nociception is a neural activity that detects thermal, mechanical or chemical changes. Dr. Julius has identified the temperature-sensitive TRPV 1 ion channels, in addition to other channels specific to mechanical nociception. Ion channels are molecularly associated cell membrane proteins that form pores capable of opening or closing to facilitate or impede the entrance of substances, usually ions that play a physiological role. Dr. Julius' programs of study has had a major impact on the elucidation of the pathways that contribute to acute and chronic pain. All this leads to the possibility of pharmacological intervention on the discovered receptors and pain conduction pathways.
Baruch Minke conducted his research on vision in the Drosophila fly, identifying and characterizing a new ion channel subject which he named Transient Receptor Potential (TRP). TRP channels are important not only for sensory systems, but also for neurons, epithelial cells, blood cells and muscle cells. TRP channels are therefore of great interest for the study of diseases that develop from these cells. And also in pain. Dr. Minke has contributed to the elucidation of the molecular instructions of pain production and maintenance.
Drs. Watkins, Julius and Minke, candidates for the award Nobel Prize in past years, deserve to receive the Prince of Asturias for deciphering some of the molecular, anatomical and physiological keys to the regulation of pain, a symptom that affects millions of people in the world, even chronically, and that sometimes physically incapacitates a large part of the population.