23andMe and Grünenthal to Study the Genetics of Pain

Pain is complex and personal.

Female foot above pushpin

You understand the level of your own pain, but it’s harder to understand it in others.

Compound fractures, burns, kidney stones, a stubbed toe or wrenched back — they all hurt, but they hurt differently for each of us, and we respond differently to treatments meant to relieve the discomfort. Beyond that there is the complexity of chronic pain, a persistent menace experienced by an estimated 50 million people in the United States alone, according to the National Institutes of Health. Chronic pain is defined as pain that inexplicably persists far beyond what is expected.

To better understand the complexities of pain, chronic pain and the differences in how individuals experience pain and respond to treatments for it, researchers here at 23andMe in collaboration with scientists at the German-based pharmaceutical company Grünenthal are embarking on a new study. The research will look at pain, chronic pain, the treatments used to alleviate it and the role that genetics plays in it all.

“Results from this initiative may help advance the use of precision medicine in pain management, as scientists explore how genetics may underlie the differences and similarities among individuals, and how they experience pain,” said Emily Drabant Conley, Ph.D., 23andMe’s vice president of business development.

The goal is to enroll 20,000 people to participate in what would be one of the largest studies of its kind, combining genetic data with information on lifestyle as well as additional data from a pain tolerance test undergone by each participant. This commonly used “Cold Pressor Test” offers researchers a way to gauge pain thresholds and tolerance for individuals by having participants immerse their hand into icy water for up to three minutes. This allows researchers to more accurately compare pain tolerance between individuals participating in the study.

Participants in this study will also have to answer survey questions about their pain sensitivity and drug tolerance, as well as assess the pain associated with past experiences and imagined scenarios.

In recent years there has been intriguing research that has found associations between a person’s tolerance for pain and their ethnicity, gender or age. A study, published in the Journal of Pain, also found that “women, older individuals, and non-Hispanics were more likely to report any pain, but Asians less likely,” and “the impact of gender on pain is influenced by race and ethnicity.” Another study found that chronic pain could arise through the combined effect of many genetic factors, and that the risk for chronic pain is heightened if there is also a genetic risk for depression.

The new 23andMe and Grünenthal study could shed more light on why these differences occur by understanding genetic factors associated with pain sensitivity, progression, severity, and response to treatments.






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